Webb essay winner: Goodbye to all that

The workhouse is gone, but child poverty demands attention.

Over one hundred years ago Beatrice Webb headed the group that published the Minority Report. Webb claimed that the purpose of the report was 'to secure a national minimum of civilised life open to all alike, of both sexes and all classes', by which she meant 'sufficient nourishment and training when young, a living wage when able-bodied, treatment when sick, and modest but secure livelihood when disabled or aged' . The report represented one of the first attempts to determine and tackle the root causes of poverty. Unfortunately Webb's innovative claims went widely ignored at the time of their publication. The majority consensus remained that poverty was due to a weakness of individual character. Webb was a strong believer in the claim that poverty is a result of systemic factors. She believed that if the systemic factors were addressed then poverty could be ended. Time has allowed for major reforms and today Webb's ideas raise some important questions about what constitutes poverty and how it can be measured within the UK.

Modern day measures of poverty tend to focus on the number of people who earn below 60% of the median income. Income is important and should be considered when addressing poverty, however the individual causes and components of poverty deserve a greater appreciation. As a starting point it is worth using the most popular living standards index that exists today. The Human Development Index (HDI) is very well-known mainly due to its simplicity. It exemplifies how any good index should be easy to understand if it is going to be practical. The HDI has many qualities which suggest that Webb would have used it as a poverty index. The use of literacy rates and gross enrolment ratios are good indicators of 'training when young'. Life expectancy from birth is an all-encompassing indicator as it says something about whether there is 'sufficient nourishment', 'treatment when sick' and a 'modest ... livelihood' being provided within a society. Additionally the income index within the HDI acts as an indicator for the 'living wage when able bodied'.

However one problem with the HDI is that it does not take into account the inequalities that may exist within a seemingly well-functioning society. This means that the HDI does a bad job of addressing Webb's point of any national minimum being 'open to all alike, of both sexes and all classes'. A promising alternative is a disaggregated index. A widely cited example of a disaggregated index is the Gender-related Development Index (GDI). However Webb described her beliefs about wages with the phrase, 'Equal Pay for work of Equal Value in Quantity and Quality'. She stated that her main concern was for the 'national minimum' to be open to men and women alike, rather than men and women necessarily earning the same . However Webb did recognise that the phrase 'Equal Pay for Equal Work' had been used in her time to unfairly prohibit women.

If Webb were alive today she would more likely have preferred a disaggregated HDI that calculates different indexes for different income groups in society . Income inequality is arguably the bigger factor affecting UK poverty today as a citizen's disposable income is what has a greater effect on their ability to take part in social activities and buy necessities for daily life. The disaggregated HDI for the lowest quintile income group would therefore be a good poverty index keeping Webb's beliefs at heart. This type of HDI would identify whether a 'national minimum of civilised life' is being achieved in the UK.

On the other hand there is the question as to whether the equal weighting given to life expectancy and GDP per capita by the HDI is reflective of Webb's views. As life expectancy is such an all-encompassing factor it is only fair that it has greater weight placed on it. Not only that but GDP per capita is also the indicator that most suffers from using a disaggregated HDI. This is because GDP growth is simply an increase in output by a nation. If a nation increases its output in weaponry then this will do little to help the living standards of the poorest fifth of the UK . More specific to Webb is the fact that GDP per capita doesn't say anything about the income for the unemployed, the sick and the elderly. Therefore a better indicator is required.

The indicator that should replace GDP per capita should be one that is more appropriate to poverty. Considering Webb's initial desire for the more helpless members of society to be given support she would probably feel heartened by the claim that she needn't worry about the livelihood of the aged. Recent data suggests that this claim is accurate, going so far as to say that it is less likely for pensioners to live in low-income households than non-pensioners . This is of course something that should be monitored regularly to ensure its validity, but at the moment a UK poverty index doesn't have to make as many allowances for the income of elderly citizens. This conclusion may actually be considered an example of Webb's triumph in impacting modern policy as her consideration for the elderly helped to signal the foundations of pension schemes today.

The outlook is not as bright for the ill and the unemployed though; the original victims of the workhouse. In fact long-term unemployment and illness go hand in hand in some parts of the UK. Statistics have suggested that approximately three quarters of working age people who have been receiving out-of-work benefits for two years or more are either sick or disabled . One of the problems with long-term unemployment as a result of a sickness or disability is that it may lead to a vicious circle whereby the person is never able to fully recover due to their time spent away from professional or social activity. Unemployment in itself is not totally deplorable though. In fact short-term unemployment may actually be viewed as an opportunity for people to find better jobs for themselves. For people in this position there is a Job Seekers Allowance ensuring them a 'living wage' at all times.

However it is long-term unemployment that can contribute to poverty and lower living standards. To some extent even Webb appreciated the Majority's sentiment towards poverty when she advocated 'detention colonies...for able-bodied people who refused either work or training' . This suggests that Webb's desire was for sickly or disabled citizens to be preparing themselves for after treatment when they would be able to get back into work. The onset of citizens defrauding benefit services in modern times makes this an issue that needs addressing.

Therefore the indicator replacing GDP per capita is the percentage by which long-term benefit recipients' increases or decreases over the period of one year. To create an indicator for long-term benefit recipients there should be maximum values of increase and decrease specified which can be used appropriately to create a new component of the poverty index. Similar to the way one creates an index with GDP per capita data to compile the HDI. The only difference is that an increase in the number of long-term benefits recipients pushes the index down whereas an increase in GDP per capita pushes the HDI up.

Webb's use of the phrase 'living-wage' is also important here and is embedded within the motivation to reduce long term benefits recipients. The minimum wage exists in order to mark a level of subsistence that is sufficient for all citizens. This means that getting people working means getting people earning, at the very least, the 'living-wage'.

On the other hand Webb specified the importance of treatment for those who are sick. The current index appears to have more of a focus on ensuring people are working rather than actually improving in health. Fortunately this issue is implicitly dealt with in two ways. The first way is through the fact that the UK has a universal healthcare system which means that treatment is accessible for all regardless of income. The second is the realisation that the long-term benefits recipients' indicator indirectly takes into account the quality of healthcare provision in the UK. If the healthcare system was to deteriorate and patient waiting lists grew longer, rendering more citizens incapable of working, then this would contribute to an increase in the number of long-term benefits recipients.

The final, and possibly most important, issue that the index should address is 'sufficient nourishment ... when young'. The UK has seen a vast increase in the level of child poverty over the years and it is suggested that almost a third of all children in the UK are living in poverty . This means that the UK has a proportionally greater number of children in poverty than many other developed countries. The issue is serious enough to be given an individual indicator within any UK poverty index.

However there is a difficulty that arises in indexing child poverty. One might choose to use an indicator that focuses on the number of children in child poverty, or alternatively one could use an indicator that measures a major cause of child poverty. The latter type of indicator seems more appropriate when one considers Webb's tactic of approaching poverty by looking at structural causes.

The difficulty then arises in determining what causes are sufficiently worthy of being measured. There are numerous causes of child poverty within the UK. The main causes are often the same as the causes of most types of poverty; low income possibly caused by unemployment, lack of institutional support and social division. However there are also causes that are unique to child poverty such as higher divorce rates and greater numbers of teen pregnancies. The proposed index already considers long term unemployment and education levels within the UK which goes some way in raising public awareness about some of the main causes of child poverty.

However the final indicator will focus on causes specific to child poverty. To identify these causes within the realm of Webb's thinking the key word that needs to be recognised is 'nourishment'. Nourishment can refer to physical or emotional factors and when taken in a modern day context it refers to a good standard of living for the young. The indicator will therefore focus on factors that inhibit nourishment. The first factor to be included in the child poverty indicator is the number of underage pregnancies that result in actual births. It is being used because, naturally, young mothers find it extremely difficult to nourish their children in the same way as an older, more settled woman would.

The second factor used is the concentration of poor children in the UK. It is sometimes the case that poverty breeds more poverty. In an area with highly concentrated child poverty the poor children only see other poor children; effectively depriving them of social nourishment. Currently half of the children in the UK who are eligible for free school meals are concentrated in a fifth of the schools . The proposed way of indexing this is by using a technique very similar to the one used when calculating the Gini coefficient. A line of absolute equality is formed which is based on all schools having an even proportion of children on free school meals and then the actual data is plotted. The ratio of the areas between these lines can then be used to create a concentration coefficient.

The third and final factor is the number of lone parents within the UK. Recent data suggests that 46% of children in lone parent households are living in poverty whereas within two-parent families the figure is 22% . The number of lone parents and the number of underage pregnancies that result in actual births would both be indexed in similar ways. The percentage increase or decrease each year is expressed as a fraction of some maximum; similar to the way in which the long-term benefit recipients' indicator is indexed.

These four components can be used in an effective way to increase awareness of poverty. The first component is education and looks at gross enrolment ratios and literacy rates. The second component is living standards and uses the indicator of life expectancy. The third component is unemployment and is considered by the number of long-term benefits recipients. The fourth component is child poverty and uses the number of underage pregnancies that result in birth, the number of lone parents in the UK and the concentration of poor children. The four components are all weighted equally. The three indicators for child poverty are also weighted equally within their respective component.

Additionally the components of education and living standards are disaggregated and only focus on the poorest fifth of the UK; stemming from Webb's intention for a national minimum. After all if the index suggests that the UK's poorest citizens are living longer and learning more then the level of prosperity for the whole UK is either at the level suggested by the index or, more likely, even higher. The remaining components of the index are not disaggregated as they are not as directly affected by income.

The issue of poverty can be promoted by this index in the same way as the HDI. The minimum value possible is 0 and the maximum is 1. If the number given by the index increases one year then poverty, as defined by the components that make up the index, has decreased. Politicians hoping to increase the index number could only do so by increasing how long we live for, getting people back into work, improving access to education or tackling the causes of child poverty.

To conclude, this poverty index is designed with Beatrice Webb's initial vision. However it also recognises that she worked at a time when poverty in the UK was of an absolute nature. Her insight into the UK system with the Minority Report helped to recognise that the poverty people were experiencing was structural and it was up to the state to change it. She helped create the ideas that were behind the welfare state and the universal healthcare system. In doing this she achieved the structural change she had intended and it is because of her efforts that the index suggested in this essay is so particular to the UK. Not many countries can boast being a welfare state, having universal healthcare and a minimum wage. If Webb were alive today to compile her own poverty index for the UK she would probably smile at how UK citizens can keep out of the workhouse and not worry about the Poor Laws, that is, before turning her attention to the problems of child poverty and social cohesion.

This article first appeared in the 02 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, And you thought 2011 was bad ...

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit: monbiot.com/music/

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood