The Poverty and Social Exclusion Team have just published their first report ‘The Impoverishment of the UK’ which documents the deprivation suffered by a growing number of people living below what the public agrees is a minimum standard of living. It is the result of the largest ever study of poverty conducted in the UK, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and building on surveys completed in 1983, 1990, 1999 and 2002/03. The team involved comes from five different universities across the UK and is full of internationally renowned experts on poverty, deprivation and social exclusion. In short, its findings, one might hope, should carry some weight.
The first thing to note is the title of the report – the ‘impoverishment’ of the UK. There is nothing natural or organic or inevitable about poverty. Nor is it an accident, as Nelson Mandela pointed out. It is man-made and as the title points out, the UK – or at least a large proportion of it – has been made poor. The UK is, of course, a phenomenally rich country, but it is a rich country with a shockingly high number of poor people in it. Certain politicians and newspapers try to argue that it is poor people themselves who are the architects of their own poverty through their ‘addictive behaviour’, their ‘bad cultures’, their sexual promiscuity or their ‘something for nothing’ attitude. However, as Peter Townsend, one of the original members of the PSE team before his death in 2009, points out, we should ignore this view and take greater interest in the part played by ‘the state, industry and the wealthy classes in ‘manufacturing’ poverty in the first place’. In a passage particularly relevant to the living standards approach of the PSE team, he goes on to say:
‘we have to look at the influences exerted by the rich in defining and controlling the conditions, and setting the fashions, which are continually redefining and reconstituting the structures of need which citizens experience in their everyday lives’ (‘The pursuit of equality’ 1983, Poverty, pp11-15)
The report contains some truly shocking facts and findings – around 2.5 million children live in homes that are damp, roughly 14 million people cannot afford one or more essential goods, about 5.5 million adults go without essential clothing. However, one of the most surprising – and potentially worrying – trends is the increase in the levels of social deprivation. The report highlights that the rhetoric of ‘austerity’ is beginning to have an impact on social activities and networks, which are being regarded as ‘luxuries’ or ‘non-essentials’ by growing numbers of people. So, for the first time, and bucking the trend in surveys going back over the past 30 years, being able to give presents to family and friends once a year was not considered to be a necessity by the majority of people. Similarly, having friends around for a meal or drink once a month or children’s friends visit for tea or a snack once a fortnight were no longer seen as necessities by the majority of people. At a time when we’re being told by politicians that we’re all in it together and ‘The Big Society’ (remember that?) was lauded as the answer to a shrinking state, the result of political language and decision making is that we are actually becoming increasingly individualised, struggling to construct and maintain our own lives and with few resources spare to fulfil any social roles or obligations. Not only has the UK suffered an economic recession, but we appear to be going through a social recession as well. Perhaps, as the research suggests, we might be reaching a point where there genuinely is ‘no such thing as society: there are individual men and women, and there are families’. However, Margaret Thatcher went to on to say that ‘people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then to look after our neighbour’ and on, this, I would agree, especially at the current time, where, as the conclusion of the report points out ‘the impacts of the current government austerity measures are set to hit hard those whose standard of living is already well below that seen by a majority to be minimal’ (my emphasis).
The word crisis is much used at the moment, by politicians and by media commentators. Whenever I hear it, I am reminded of a quote from Milton Friedman, one of the architects of neo-liberalism, and who would probably largely agree with the political and economic decision making of the Coalition Government:
“Only a crisis – actual or perceived – produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”
Whilst there may be no Plan B, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any alternatives
The Tonight programme on ITV will provide the first look at the results of the Poverty and Social Exclusion Survey 2012 tonight at 7:30pm