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The socio-economic circumstances of Muslims in Britain

The socio-economic circumstances of Muslims in Britain, Asma Khan
© Cardiff University, Asma Khan

People of lower socioeconomic status have a higher likelihood of developing and experiencing mental health problems (Mental Health Foundation 2016). Muslims are significantly more likely than those of other religious groups to face significant socio-economic disadvantage at household and individual level.


Children and adults living in households in the lowest 20% income bracket in Britain are two to three times more likely to develop mental health problems than those in the highest (Mental Health Foundation 2016).

Muslims households are significantly more likely to be in conditions of poverty than those of other religious groups (Heath and Li 2015). Muslims are more likely than other groups to live in social housing, to live in private rented accommodation, and are less likely to own their own homes. Rates of household overcrowding in Britain are highest in Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Black African, and Arab households (Raleigh and Holmes 2021).

Work and employment

Employment status is linked to mental health outcomes, those who are unemployed or economically inactive having higher rates of common mental health problems than those who are employed. Employment is generally beneficial for mental health. However, the mental health benefits of employment depend on the quality of work; work that is low paid, insecure or poses health risks can be damaging to mental health (Mental Health Foundation 2016).

At the individual level, Muslim men, particularly those of Pakistani and Bangladeshi ethnicities, are more likely to be unemployed than those of other religious groups (Cheung 2014). When in work, Muslim men tend to be concentrated in low-skill and low-paid work, often in the transport or catering sectors as taxi drivers or in restaurants and take-aways. These occupations require long working hours, late shifts and evening work and can be precarious – even among the self-employed. Muslim women are more than twice as likely to be economically inactive (not in work or actively seeking work) than women of other religious groups (Cheung 2014).


British Muslim children and young people tend to perform in line with other groups at all levels of education, and in some cases perform better than them (Khattab and Modood 2018). There are ethnic and gender variations in these outcomes, for example Muslim girls tend to outperform Muslim boys in their educational attainment and Indian Muslims tend to perform better than Pakistani and Bangladeshi Muslims. There is evidence for strong parental support and high expectations around educational attainment in Muslim families (Khattab and Modood 2018).

The Muslim Penalty

Progress in educational attainment has not necessarily translated to improved labour market outcomes and therefore better socio-economic circumstances for Muslim individuals and households. Researchers attribute this disparity to a ‘Muslim penalty’ in the labour market, as a result of religious and ethnic discrimination in the labour market (Heath and Martin 2013). The Muslim penalty means that there is a difference in labour market outcomes for Muslims that cannot be explained by the factors that usually explain differences in labour market outcomes. For example, Muslim men are more likely to unemployed than similarly aged and qualified men of other religious groups (Cheung 2014). Furthermore, recent studies provide robust evidence of discrimination against Muslims in hiring practices (Zwysen, Stasi et al 2021).

Socio-economic diversity?

Whilst the overall picture for many Muslim households and individuals is one of disadvantage and inequality, there is some evidence of upward social mobility. In their analysis of data from the Census for England and Wales, the MCB (2016) found that Muslims were well-represented in the ‘higher professional occupation’ category and as ‘small employers and own account workers’. These “pockets of prosperity” described by the MCB (2016, p68), have been a feature of Muslim communities for decades and are likely to be related to pre-migration advantages in terms of recognised qualifications or socio-economic class from countries of origin.

A marked lack of generational improvement in circumstances between the first and second generation of Muslims in Britain is indicative of structural disadvantage (Karlsen Nazroo et al 2021). It is likely therefore that a context of socio-economic disadvantage is likely to frame the day-to-day experiences of Muslims and their experiences of mental health and related support in the long-term.

Over to you

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© Cardiff University, Asma Khan
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Understanding Mental Health in Muslim Communities

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