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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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

***

A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain