This is a new cliché. The Right cannot understand how anyone in Britain can be impoverished – they are in denial. Whenever I hear some chinless wonder tell us that the real poor reside on the other side of the globe on less than $2 a day, the words that spring to mind are “dishonest”, “blind” and “ignorant”.
Here are some facts from the Child Poverty Action Group that the Right wishes would go away. We’ll take the top four points.
- There are 3.6 million children living in poverty in the UK today. That’s 27 per cent of children, or more than one in four.1
- There are even more serious concentrations of child poverty at a local level: in 100 local wards, for example, between 50 and 70 per cent of children are growing up in poverty.2
- Work does not provide a guaranteed route out of poverty in the UK. Almost two-thirds (62 per cent) of children growing up in poverty live in a household where at least one member works.3
- People are poor for many reasons. But explanations which put poverty down to drug and alcohol dependency, family breakdown, poor parenting, or a culture of worklessness are not supported by the facts.4
I would like to draw the Right’s attention to the last bullet point. I know they don’t want to see this and would like to dismiss these figures as “Leftist claptrap”, but that would show them up for what they are: liars. It’s all too easy for the Right to make baseless allegations that the poor of this country fritters their money away on Sky TV and cheap booze and fags, but these people simply cannot afford these luxuries. But if people on low incomes own even the most basic television set, the Right will demand “How dare the poor desire luxuries”? We live in a consumer society where those things that were once considered luxuries are now sold as necessities (Bourdieu, 1986). Whose fault is that? It isn’t the fault of the poor. Besides, everyone – regardless of income and social class – needs some kind of diversion or amusement to make the hell of living under this Tory regime more bearable. Though in the case of the rich, life is always bearable because they have a financial cushion to protect them.
According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the UK has “proportionally more children living in poverty than most rich countries”.
Next month, the government’s welfare reforms will begin to kick in. Council Tax Benefit will go and the Bedroom Tax will be implemented, which both have the potential of forcing many more people into homelessness and/or destitution. Again, the Right deny that anyone will be worse off by the changes. This is a kick in the face with a hob-nailed boot for Britain’s poor as well as barefaced political mendacity.
Daniel Hannan, the Conservative Eurosceptic MEP, has never experienced poverty and uses an image of Wayne and Waynetta Slob from The Harry Enfield Show to make his point (I have a screengrab of the article in case he takes it down).
Last year in a blog titled “Rising welfare budgets have failed to cure poverty; it’s time to try something different”, Hannan wrote:
Iain Duncan Smith is the first occupant of his office to recognise that increasing the budget has failed. Since the Second World War, benefits and welfare bills have ballooned, yet there has been no commensurate impact on either poverty or inequality. This is because of something which, when stated, is obvious, but which contradicts the old orthodoxy:poverty is not simply an absence of money. Rather, it is bound up with other factors, including low educational attainments, unemployment, substance abuse, family breakdown and paucity of ambition. It follows that you don’t reduce poverty by giving money to the poor. To take an extreme case, giving £1000 to a heroin addict will not improve his prospects. IDS grasps that, to tackle indigence, you need to address its root causes; and that part of the answer lies in so structuring the incentives that people are determined to find work. As JFK observed more than 50 years ago, the surest way out of poverty is a secure job.
Did you notice how Hannan brought heroin addiction into his ‘argument’? He then closes this paragraph by offering us a quote from John F Kennedy that suggests that the disease of poverty is magically cured by work. But he does not bother to ask two important questions: 1) What if there are no jobs and 2) Shouldn’t people be paid a living wage that allows them to live with dignity? Low paid work actually keeps people in poverty.
For Hannan and his Tory chums, poverty in Britain is created by addicts who have a lack of an education and no ambition. Those who are poor, in the eyes of the Right, do not deserve help of any kind and you will notice the way he says “…you don’t reduce poverty by giving money to the poor”. Translated, this means “If you’re poor, tough shit. Become our slaves or die”.
Dismal Janet Daley claims there is a “poverty lobby”. She tells us, “The poverty lobby – as opposed to those who actually want to put an end to poverty – uses the “poor” as a political weapon in its ideological war against the market economy”. What this amounts to is a smear on those institutions that work towards alleviating poverty. But what Daley also does is to invite us to avert our gaze from the real causes of poverty: low or no wages (of which poor diet is a symptom), poor housing and a lack of opportunities. Indeed, one’s relationship to capital is what defines poverty.
Daley denies that the market or neoliberal economy does nothing to alleviate poverty. Instead she relies on the notion that the “Invisible Hand of the Market” and “trickle down” will provide. She supports this notion by citing an article written by Philip Booth of the very right-wing Institute of Economic Affairs.
This paragraph is the centrepiece of her article:
In spite of the fact that being in work has been shown repeatedly to be the best (and most permanent) antidote to poverty, the public relations arms of the Child Poverty Action Group and the Rowntree Trust (among many others) have been notably disinclined to support the government’s welfare reform programme even though it is designed precisely to free the poor from the benefits trap. Nor can I recall them campaigning for tax cuts on the low paid: instead of allowing people to keep more of their earnings which would relieve their hardship and give them more independence, they clamour for the continuation of tax credits which subsidise (and perpetuate) low wages, and foster dependence on the state.
But Janet, if people have no work, they cannot benefit from tax cuts. Where is your logic? Furthermore, tax cuts will not make up for the pathetic wages being paid to people. The fact remains that if people were paid proper living wages instead of peanuts, there would be no need for in-work benefits. Moreover, the structural deficit – that is often conflated by the Right with the national debt – will never go away if the Treasury isn’t making money through taxation. The Right’s calls for welfare cuts is predicated, not only on their ignorance of the lives of the poor, but also on their inbuilt social Darwinian prejudices and their deep-rooted class disgust.
Rather than see things as they really are, the Right would rather view the lives of the poor through the distorted lens of the fictional characters of Wayne and Waynetta Slob. For them, the poor and the low-waged are pizza-eating, beer-swilling schlubs with no ambitions other than to own loads of bling and watch aspirational crap on their flat-screen tellies, and who also neglect their children as a lifestyle choice. For me, their use of televisually-mediated images and apocrypha to support their morally indefensible arguments perfectly illustrates the Right’s inability to comprehend the causes and definitions of poverty and the solutions to it. Evidently, they would much rather deal with fantasy than the reality of everyday life. No wonder they’re so fond of nostalgia!
Obsessed with a nostalgic image (I could suggest spectacular image) of the Victorian age, the Tories are currently resurrecting the old Poor Laws. It’s only a matter of time before someone like Hannan demands the reintroduction of the workhouses.
Bourdieu, P. (1986) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, London: Routledge.