UN report recommends protection against “povertyism” alongside those for racism and sexism.

Oliver De Schutter, who holds the position as special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights for the United Nations, has suggested in a recent report that “povertyism” should be treated as seriously as other forms of discrimination such as racism or sexism. 

The report emphasises that discrimination and prejudiced attitudes towards poorer members of society is more pronounced in countries in which people believed the social order to be based on meritocratic principles. A view of society as a meritocracy allows poverty to be presented as a result of laziness or wrong choices being made by individuals, rather than imbalances in higher social power. This despite the fact that the wealthiest groups of society hold a disproportionate influence on the political system; an influence that has only grown in the past 40 years of expanding income inequality. 

De Schutter used the example of employment as an area in which people from poorer backgrounds are exposed to discrimination, alongside other spheres such as housing, education and health care. For example, employers may be less likely to hire people from certain areas or postcodes due to a prejudiced assumption that they would be less reliable employees. Employers may also be wary of hiring people who do not seem to “fit” the culture and image of their business, or who may appear contrary to client expectations. 

De Schutter’s recommendation to counter such discrimination is a standalone right not be discriminated on the basis of “povertyism”. In the UK, this would most likely be addressed by adding such a term to the roster of protected characteristics listed under Section 4 of the Equality Act 2010. The addition of “povertyism” into domestic anti-discrimination law would make an interesting contrast to the existing protected characteristics, which primarily focus on fixed aspects of a person’s identity such as race, age and sexual orientation. 

Whilst the UK, arguably more so than any other country, has a history of a fixed class-based social structure, the recommendation to add “povertyism” as a standalone characteristic for anti-discrimination legislation is unlikely to gain traction domestically. Perhaps most obviously, it would provide a great deal of practical difficulty as to how to define and assess whether someone had been the victim of “povertyism”; would it be a purely financial assessment of the person’s means and would this take into account geographical differences in living costs for example? What threshold of income would qualify someone to invoke “povertyism” as a protected characteristic? What level of knowledge of the person’s personal circumstances would an employer need to have in order to commit poverty discrimination? All these questions would undoubtedly require litigation in the higher courts to provide a definitive answer and this is not something neither Parliament nor the Courts will be keen to encourage. 

Ultimately, and as acknowledged by De Schutter, issues of poverty and socioeconomic inequality requires far more than anti-discrimination legislation to address fully. Although “povertyism” remains outside the Equality Act for now, our lawyers at didlaw are experienced in handling claims across the existing nine protected characteristics and would be happy to hear from you regarding any issues you are facing at work.

This blog was written by Michael Green, trainee solicitor for didlaw.