Age-old problems

Poverty continues to be a central feature in the lives of many
older people in Britain. This was confirmed in a recent report that
found that nearly half of older people in deprived city
neighbourhoods were going without items regarded as everyday
necessities by most people.1 In some cases, this even
included cutting back on basics such as food, heating and

Coping with poverty is a challenge for older people wherever they
live. However, our research suggests that the task of managing on a
low income is made harder still by living in a deprived urban
environment. Such communities place additional costs on their older
residents. For example, the withdrawal of public and commercial
services from areas deemed to be unprofitable or unsustainable
means that shops and services that remain have less competition and
can charge more.

Older people often have to leave their neighbourhood to reach
cheaper shops or a post office. Concern about crime means that many
will not leave the house alone, or they rely on expensive taxis to
travel around. Fear of crime also leads many older people to make
costly housing adaptations. Fitting window bars, effective door and
window locks or a burglar alarm consumes a large part of some
people’s budgets. Many older people do not insure the contents of
their home because of high premiums and low incomes. Poor quality
housing inevitably costs more to heat and maintain.

How older people manage on incomes at or below the poverty line can
be illustrated with examples from interviews we conducted with 130
people aged 60 or over in deprived areas of Liverpool, Manchester
and Newham, in east London.

Enid Brown (all names of older people have been changed in this
article), a widow in her mid-70s, has lived in Liverpool since
birth. Having spent her adult life working as a cleaner, she finds
it very difficult to manage on a modest retirement income. Like
most older people, Brown prioritises paying household bills over
outgoings: “One week I pay £14 a fortnight for the electric
and £14 a fortnight for the gas, that’s £28. The next
week I pay for the television. The following week is £28 water
rates, and then rent on top, so that’s £35. And then the next
week is the television licence and cableÉ there’s not much
left afterwards. So you’ve got to budget.”

One way Brown copes is to limit her use of the telephone: “I’m on
incoming calls only for the phone, but I can ring 999 if I need to.
I was getting big bills so I had it put on incoming calls only.”
Another way is to cut back on food. Brown’s budget only allows her
to buy the cheapest food. When shopping, she seeks out special
offers and discounted items: “It’s not only two-for-one. Sometimes
it’s just reduced pricing – they knock £1 off this and £1
off that, you know, so you buy it when it’s cheap.”

Brown said that being more socially active would improve her
quality of life: “Some people go to bingo, but I can’t afford to.
Because we’re just on state pension, we don’t get any extras.” Her
current income seriously curtails this aspect of her life: “It
makes you feel so mean. People invite you over and you sort of shy
clear because you think, well I’d have to have people here, you

Our research shows that poverty is particularly acute among older
people from ethnic minorities. The case of Saeed Raza and his wife
is typical. They have lived in Manchester for more than 30 years,
since migrating from Pakistan. In retirement, Raza finds the task
of making ends meet particularly stressful: “I find it really hard.
Sometimes I stay awake at night thinking about how we will pay
these bills and manage with what we are on. I feel so

When asked if he goes without necessities, Raza replies: “All the
time! Do you know, I haven’t bought any new clothes for myself in
the past year. My shoes are wearing down, my clothes are thinning
and don’t keep the cold out much. But we need the money to buy food
and pay our bills.”

However, he did not see his situation as being unusual: “Everyone
is in trouble nowadays. There is so much debt and financial
problems. But you have to cope as best as you can.”

Ali Khalid is in a similar situation. A retired seafarer, Khalid
has lived in Liverpool since migrating from Somalia more than 40
years ago. One way of managing his low income is to let out rooms
in his house. This allows him to keep up with the bills: “It’s
difficult when you are paying all the utilities, such as gas and
electricity, you can just manage to survive. You have to always try
to cover all the bills not to receive any court injunctions or
anything like that.”

Following a break-in, Khalid had security bars fitted to his
windows. He also feels some financial responsibility towards his
family, and would rather go without himself than be unable help his
children. He often cuts back on food: “I mean it’s possible that
you will make less food than you will normally need in order to
cover other expenses. I mean meat, for instance, is part of my diet
and it’s very important for me. So sometimes I have to reduce the
amount of meat that I’ve bought and also the amount of rice that I
cook or the amount of spaghetti.” Gas and electricity are also
restricted: “Sometimes I don’t in fact use the gas or the central
heating. If I don’t do that, I won’t be able to manage

Our research, illustrated here with a handful of cases, raises
important policy issues. The minimum income guarantee (MIG) is the
cornerstone of government attempts to target benefits at pensioners
in greatest need. However, many people taking part in this research
were simply not aware of the MIG. Older people from ethnic
minorities experienced particular difficulty in negotiating their
way through the complexities of the benefits system.

There is an urgent need to tackle barriers to the take-up of
benefit entitlements. However, our research suggests that raising
the level of the basic state pension would be a better way of
lifting older people out of poverty, ensuring that all pensioners
receive a decent retirement income.

Putting more money into the pockets of older people could have
benefits beyond the alleviation of poverty. Such a strategy could
also play a role in regenerating inner city areas. Older people are
more likely to spend money in their own locality, thus helping to
sustain local services and amenities, and our research demonstrates
that they are often highly committed to improving their
neighbourhoods. Long-time residence can produce an attachment to an
area that can be a positive benefit if used in the right way. In
conclusion, regeneration initiatives that consider the needs of
older people and engage with older residents could prove a valuable
ally in promoting social inclusion.

Thomas Scharf, Chris Phillipson are professors and
Allison Smith a research fellow, school of social relations, Keele
University; and Paul Kingston is professor in the school of health,
University of Wolverhampton 


1 T Scharf, C Phillipson, A E Smith and P Kingston,
Growing Older in Socially Deprived Areas: Social Exclusion in
Later Life
, Help the Aged, London, 2002

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