Poverty has been a constant hardship throughout human history. The economic statistician Angus Maddison has estimated – from the very fragmentary evidence that exists – that the distribution of income 2,000 years ago was remarkably equal: almost everyone, everywhere was very poor. The figures he has reported tell us furthermore that the average world income and the regional distribution of income per head were pretty much the same in CE 1000 as they had been 1,000 years earlier. It would appear that regional disparities became significant only from the beginning of the 19th century: income per head in Western Europe had by then become three times that in Africa (1).
The different types of poverty
Due to a number of factors, we find ourselves in an existence marred by disproportionality and global inequality. These factors have led to disproportionate growth and varying lifestyles across the world. Different countries are challenged with different layers of poverty. Some countries are grippled with a high ratio of absolute and extreme poverty, whilst others have a mix of absolute and relative poverty. Then there are those which are challenged by relative poverty.
The United Nations defined absolute poverty as “a condition characterised by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information. It depends not only on income but also on access to services.” Over time, the concept of what constitutes ‘basic necessities of life’ may change. Three centuries ago in the Western economies, basic necessities may have been limited to food, shelter and clothing. However, given the average lifestyle in the Western world, the following amenities have become necessities: electricity, heating, gas supply, cooking facilities and water supply. Relative poverty can be defined as “a condition where household income is a certain percentage below median income. For example, the threshold for relative poverty could be set at 50% of median incomes (or 60%)” (2).
Countries which do not have a high ratio of absolute poverty, are still addressing and creating policy to deal with poverty in their society, because every society has certain standards of consumption which are considered necessary to maintain ‘decency’. This view dates back to Adam Smith, who argued that things become necessities when it becomes ‘indecent for creditable people, even of the lowest order, to be without’. So, in a famous example, he argued that a linen shirt is ‘not a necessary of life’ but ‘in the present times, through the greater part of Europe, a creditable day-labourer would be ashamed to appear in public without a linen shirt, the want of which would be supposed to denote that disgraceful degree of poverty’. This notion of poverty is what is known as “relative poverty” (3).
Poverty in the UK
The United Kingdom has been experiencing the birth of absolute poverty and a significant rise in relative poverty. A report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, shows that a total of 14 million people in the UK currently live in poverty – more than one in five of the population. While poverty levels fell in the years to 2011-12, changes to welfare policy – especially since the 2015 Budget – have seen the numbers creep up again (4). Nearly 400,000 more children and 300,000 more pensioners are now living in poverty than five years ago. The Guardian reports that more than 8 million people in Britain live in households that struggle to put enough food on the table, with over half regularly going a whole day without eating, according to estimates of hunger in the UK (5). In respect to Muslim households, the Social Mobility Commission found that 50% of Muslim households are in poverty compared to 18% for the population overall (6). In fact, data collected by the Muslim Council of Britain showed that nearly half (46% or 1.22 million) of the Muslim population lives in the 10% most deprived and 1.7% (46,000) in the 10% least deprived Local Authority Districts in England (7). These stark data patterns led The Huffington Post to conclude that “British Muslims are among the most deprived in the country” (8).
To address the quagmire of poverty we find ourselves in the UK, there needs to be movement at all fronts: from structural adjustment, policy reform to grassroots efforts. One such structural adjustment Muslims can make is the establishment of the pillar of Zakat in the UK. Zakat is a God-given system and a communal resource which Muslims across the globe can use to deal with their local issues, inequalities, injustices and disproportionalities. The Prophetic instruction to Mu’adh was “take from their rich and give to their poor”, which subtly alludes to the idea of localities developing mini-ecosystems to cycle and recycle Zakat among themselves to deal with poverty in a centralised, focused and exerted manner.
Our vision is for Islam to flourish in society as a source of prosperity and harmony for all. We distribute Zakat transformatively within the United Kingdom.
Through giving out Zakat grants in the UK, we’re here to support and empower individuals in poverty, transform community institutions, and promote understanding of faith and believers.
1. Dasgupta, P. (2007), Economics A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press
2. Pettinger, T. (2017), Definition of absolute and relative poverty, Economics Help, Available from: https://www.economicshelp.org/blog/glossary/definition-of-absolute-and-relative-poverty/
3. Chang, H.J. (2014), Economics: The User’s Guide, Pelican Books
4. Bulman, M. (2017), Fifth of UK population now in poverty amid worst decline for children and pensioners in decades, major report reveals in Independent, Available from: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/poverty-britain-joseph-rowntree-foundation-report-theresa-may-social-mobility-commission-million-a8089491.html
5. Butler, P. (2016), More than 8 million in UK struggle to put food on the table, survey says in The Guardian
6. Social Mobility Commission. The Social Mobility Challenges Faced by Young Muslims Stevenson J, Demack S, Stiell B, Abdi M, Clarkson L, Sheffield Hallam university. (Sept 2017).
7. MCB. Census Report (2015)