The existence of poverty in a wealthy nation with the resources to overcome it is not simply an injustice: it is a social crime. It is a political choice, as evidenced by countries where poverty rates are lower because they take conscious decisions to build strong welfare states, support powerful trade unions and encourage progressive taxation.
Poverty subjects human beings to tedium and boredom by restricting their freedoms. It leads to the constant, exhausting intrusions of anxiety provoked by an unopened gas bill on the kitchen table or the costs of an unexpected school trip. Some will find that they have been denied the satisfaction of one of the most basic human needs – to eat – and will join the hundreds of thousands driven to food banks.
In a consumer society that defines our worth by what we own and wear, children are judged, stigmatised and bullied for not having the right clothes or gadgets. It limits the possibilities of friendship: the young who can’t invite schoolmates home because their parents can’t afford to feed them. Poverty holds back educational attainment, suppressing the talent and potential of the young – an act of vandalism not only on their future, but on their country’s future too. For adults, the claim that anyone can make it, with a little talent and a lot of hard work, shames those who struggle financially. There are the missed trips to the pub, for fear of having to buy a round they cannot afford.
Poverty damages wellbeing, increasing the risk of mental health problems. Poorer children have lower birth weights and grow up with higher risk of chronic disease and diet-related conditions. It leads to death. The poorest communities have life expectancies more than nine years shorter than the most affluent. The risk of suicide is higher. A society that ignores and demonises the poor helped make possible the Grenfell disaster – in which 72 people died. Poverty is violence.
A study by the New Economics Foundation finds that “millions of people are set to fall through the cracks in the emergency job and income protection schemes”. After a decade of Tory cuts, euphemistically repackaged as “welfare reform”, Britain has one of the “the most inadequate social safety nets of any advanced economy”. That leaves more than 20 million Britons falling below the “minimum socially acceptable standard of living”, but it will rise still further: another 1.9 million will be thrown over the cliff edge.
There are many reasons why. The furlough scheme was welcome, but only 80% of normal salaries were protected, and most companies failed to top up the rest. Working hours have fallen as unemployment has risen. Universal credit doesn’t make up the shortfall. There are other factors worth considering too. Statutory sick pay in Britain is derisory, compared with other countries.
Public sector workers have suffered years of a pay freeze – a pay cut, in practice – which is to be extended. As the NEF’s head of economics, Alfie Stirling, tells me, those justifying the latest raid on public sector wages by pointing out that private sector workers are also suffering miss the point: “If a public sector worker doesn’t buy an extra coffee each week, that costs jobs in the private sector.” The economy is not like a household budget: my income is your income, and if mine is cut, I spend less, demand is sucked out of the economy and you may end up working fewer hours, have your wages cut, or lose your job. And the cycle continues.
Here’s the danger. When the 2008 crash happened, it seemed obvious whom the responsibility lay with: a financial elite, and the politicians who had deregulated the banking sector. And yet look what happened: benefit claimants and immigrants were demonised and scapegoated. This time round, the Tories will say the rise in poverty is all very sad, but it is an inevitable consequence of a natural disaster that was out of their hands. At the same time, they are returning to their old tricks – escalating bile against migrants and refugees. They must not get away with it. Their mishandling of the pandemic – delayed lockdown, a botched test-and-trace system combined with a premature opening up and subsequent harsher lockdown, requiring the closure of much of the economy and unemployment, has left people falling through a social safety net that has been shredded over the previous decade.
When hungry evacuees turned up on the doorsteps of the more fortunate in second world war, it helped foster a national demand for the welfare state. The war exposed existing injustices and, with so much sacrifice and hardship, the continuation of those injustices was untenable; that’s why the Beveridge report was an unlikely bestseller when it was printed in 1942. As poverty and hardship surge – needlessly so – in the greatest crisis since that war, Labour must point to the need for another social settlement when the peace bought by mass vaccination comes.
Poverty is not an act of God: it is the greatest social sin of all, the source of countless other ills, caused by conscious decisions made by the powerful. The epidemic of poverty has multiple cures – a strengthened welfare state, trade union movement and living wage – and Labour must fight for them.