More than two million pensioners in the UK live below the poverty line, with many more living just above it. Many groups within the older population are at a budgetary crisis point, reflecting a combination of the long-term impacts of COVID-19, cuts affecting health and social care, and the cost-of-living crisis. In this article, Camilla Lewis, Sophie Yarker and Chris Phillipson explore how older people – particularly those from ethnic minority backgrounds – are impacted by the cost of living crisis, and make policy recommendations to tackle these inequalities.
- The cost-of-living crisis is having an unequal impact on different groups within the older population.
- There are some distinctive characteristics which are more likely to place older people from ethnic minority backgrounds at risk of economic hardship and social exclusion. These include: the long-term impact of the pandemic, housing insecurity, the rising price of imported food, racism and discrimination, and language barriers resulting in limited access to services.
- Policymakers must work closely with communities, to challenge racism and the inequalities that affect older people from ethnic minority backgrounds, with the recognition that these inequalities become more deep-rooted with pressures associated with the rising cost-of-living.
Older people from ethnic minority backgrounds and the cost of living
The ‘cost-of-living crisis’ has seen prices steadily increase across a range of consumer goods. While rising prices are unprecedented, the ‘cost-of-living’ crisis should be considered within the context of decades of welfare reform, the 2008- 2010 financial crisis, post-2010 austerity, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite comprising only around 15% of the population in the UK, more than a quarter (26%) of those in ‘deep poverty’ (i.e. more than 50% below the poverty line) are from a minority ethnic background and make up a growing share of those on the lowest incomes. For people from an ethnic minority background, the impact of rising energy bills has been particularly striking. In 2022 the Office for National Statistics found that around 4 in 10 (44%) White adults reported finding it difficult to afford their energy bills, compared with around two-thirds (69%) for Black or Black British adults, and around 6 in 10 (59%) Asian or Asian British adults.
Many of the challenges people from African and Caribbean, South Asian and other ethnic minorities are facing around financial hardship are similar to those of older people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, including White British people. But there are also some distinctive characteristics which are more likely to place older people from ethnic minority backgrounds at risk of economic hardship and social exclusion.
While the number of people aged 65 and older in the population has increased by 20% (to 10.4 million), the number of over-65s from ethnic minority backgrounds has increased by 70% (to 698,000). The increase in the numbers and proportions of ethnic minority groups, as well as their diversity, highlights the importance of tackling the problems associated with poverty and rising energy costs.
Developing policies to address inequalities within the older population
Members of the Manchester Urban Ageing Research Group collaborated with the Manchester BME Network and the Centre for Ageing Better to understand the lived experiences of older people from ethnic minority backgrounds, as well as the views of organisations working on their behalf in a new report.
Findings from the research suggest that the cost-of-living crisis has had a disproportionate impact on older Black, Asian and other ethnic minorities. Existing inequalities place minority ethnic groups at heightened risk from the effects of high inflation and associated pressures. These include: the long-term impact of the pandemic, housing insecurity, the rising price of imported food, racism and discrimination, and language barriers resulting in limited access to services.
The research also suggests that voluntary and community services are struggling to maintain adequate levels of support, reflecting cuts to their funding, and a decline in the number of volunteers – accelerated by the impact of COVID-19.
As the population is set to become more ethnically diverse in the years ahead, the research puts forward a number of recommendations for national, regional and local government:
Develop greater awareness around the ways that the cost-of-living crisis is affecting older people from ethnic minority communities.
While it is important to highlight the extent of the impact of the cost-of-living crisis on older people from ethnic minority backgrounds, it should also be recognised that there is considerable diversity within and across different communities.
Prioritise culturally appropriate community provisions
Face-to-face services and informal spaces for older people to socialise should be prioritised with support provided by staff and volunteers who speak a range of languages to ensure that older people from different groups feel welcome and included. As local council budgets are unlikely to increase, new provisions could ‘piggyback’ on existing services and spaces to offer this sort of support, faith organisations and local libraries being two such examples. The findings emphasised the importance of in person services, with interviewees stating that digital and phone services often did not ‘make a difference on the ground’ among more vulnerable populations.
Cultural sensitivity is crucial in the provision of services
National government and local authorities should recognise that services must be culturally sensitive to help maintain the independence of older people, respecting their diverse identities and backgrounds. This should involve face-to-face specialist advice around debt, finances, pensions and other benefits, tailored to the specific needs of various groups to counteract various forms of stigma.
Focus on reinvesting in public services and address structural inequality.
As the older population is set to become more ethnically diverse in the years ahead, tackling inequality should be a priority for national government. This could include
- Establishing a Commissioner for Older People and Ageing in England, as proposed by the Centre for Ageing Better, in order to ensure that the diverse range of voices in later life are championed;
- Developing a new race equality strategy, to prevent gaps in finances and health in later life widening further;
- Applying a race equality lens to the ‘Levelling Up’ agenda in order to acknowledge and address inequalities among different ethnic groups.
These measures would enable central government to address structural inequality, support some of the most vulnerable households during the period of economic crisis, and help the country to weather future national crises.