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Psychologists back real living wage as new paper reveals impact of poverty on people’s ability to make positive changes

16 November 2021

Psychologists have backed the need for a real living wage as a priority, as millions across the country face a difficult winter with soaring fuel and food prices and following the £20 cut to Universal Credit.

The BPS has published a new briefing paper which explores how poverty saps the control people have over their lives, and limits their ability to make positive changes. It urges policy makers to empower people to ‘level up’ their lives, with a real living wage as a key factor. Its publication coincides with Living Wage week, which celebrates 20 years of the Living Wage movement.

The paper and its recommendations come as a new study undertaken by the Institute for Public Policy Research finds that poverty is driving more than 1.3 million avoidable cases of depression in the UK.

Professor Philip Murphy, from the BPS’ Expert Reference Group on Poverty to Flourishing who worked on the document, said:

“There is psychological evidence that the mental functioning of people in poverty can suffer in a variety of ways. For example, poor nutrition in childhood is associated with poor performance in school. For adults, the stress of coping with poverty reduces their cognitive ability to deal with anything but immediate problems. Their ability to plan for the future and improve their position is diminished. Consequently, it is possible to talk of a psychological poverty trap which helps to perpetuate the economic one. A living wage would clearly help to overcome these problems.”

As well as a living wage, the paper highlights the clear link between children going hungry, their educational attainment and subsequent life chances. Poor educational attainment can limit opportunities for stable employment, and social and economic security further down the line. It argues that preventing the negative impact of poverty on the cognitive abilities of children is a far-more cost effective intervention than attempting to fix the problems once they occur.

Ishbel McWha-Hermann, also a member of BPS’ Expert Reference Group on Poverty to Flourishing, who has studied the psychological impact of a living wage extensively, added:  

“Psychological evidence shows there is a tipping point where a wage enables an improved quality of life, with the sole focus shifting away from just making ends meet, and to thriving.

“It needs to go beyond covering basic living costs and enable people to make choices about how they would like to live their life and attempt to ‘level up’. That is why, in Living Wage Week, we are emphasising the importance of a real living wage to help people out of poverty. This should be an urgent priority for policy makers.”

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