Webb essay runner up: Time to end poverty

Webb would deplore the inequality in Britain today.

If the twentieth century has taught us anything, it is that there are few constants in modern life. For every invention, discovery, and idea of the nineteenth century, the following century brought us thousands more. Rapid change and continuous innovation continues to shape the current century. Amidst these developments, however there remains one major constant - poverty. Descriptions of slums, mills and workhouses conjure up an image of another world, one we have left behind as we continue our march of progress to a better way of life, but antiquated terms such as the "destitute" and the "impoverished" have a frightening relevance in the UK today. Whilst the workhouses and slums might now have been confined to the history books, there is a real, living poverty in the UK which confronts us. Poverty represents a blot on the social and political landscape of "modern" times.

It is easy to imagine that if Beatrice Webb were alive today she would find it disappointing and yet somehow unsurprising that poverty still exists in Britain. Disappointing because although over a century has passed since individuals began to campaign for the eradication of poverty, poverty still exists. Unsurprising because the causes of poverty are woven deeply into the fabric of our social and economic structures. As the Webbs and their contemporaries highlighted, the idea that poverty is caused by weakness of character or individual moral failing is inaccurate. In The Prevention of Destitution the Webbs attacked popular conceptions of the poor which painted those in poverty as corrupt and flawed individuals. The false image of the poor criticised by the Webbs bears a striking resemblance to current caricatures of the "poor man" as a work-shy, undeserving idler belonging to some form of under-class. While there may always be cases which point to personal character being linked to poverty, it is largely a myth to claim that the poor bring poverty upon themselves. Poverty is the result of problems within the political and economic system and therefore we must turn to these systems to find the solutions.

The solutions will not be easy to find. Even the nature of the problem is difficult to define. Over the last hundred years or so there have been several attempts to survey the extent of poverty both at a regional and a national level. From Charles Booth's survey of working life in London, to the work of the Blair administration's Social Exclusion Unit; from Seebohm Rowntree's York studies to the Field Review, there have been numerous attempts to examine poverty and its causes. When approaching poverty in the twenty-first century we must first begin with some difficult questions. Is there one "type" of poverty or can we discuss many "poverties"? Does poverty start and end with economic circumstances? How should we measure "poverty of opportunity" or "cultural poverty"?

The poverty indicators currently used go some way to provide a clear picture of the extent of its existence in the UK. The English Indices of Deprivation used by the Department for Communities and Local Government are organised into seven domains: income, employment, health and disability, education and training, barriers to housing and services, living environment, and crime.

This approach to poverty, however, does not account for a variation in the "type" of poverty experienced by individuals or families. Nor does it encourage appreciation of the fact that poverty is not necessarily just about material deprivation. The lack of cultural stimulation or the lack of a sense of involvement also represents a form of poverty, even if the consequences of this deprivation are less serious (and less immediate) than economic deprivation. Therefore, if Beatrice Webb were to conduct an enquiry into UK poverty, she might examine a wider range of indicators.

It might be useful to organise these indicators into the following groupings: primary indicators relating to basic needs, indicators of social and economic barriers, and indicators linked to social inclusion. Obviously when analysing data relating to poverty it is difficult to draw any accurate conclusions relating to the causes of poverty. For example, if a person is living on a low income and they lack basic literacy and numeracy skills, is it their existing poverty which has led to their educational underachievement of is it their lack of academic skills which has contributed to their poverty? To attempt to understand patterns of poverty it might be necessary to measure the poverty indicators over two generations. This would also reveal any fluctuations in factors such as income.

Firstly, we could look at primary indicators which can be considered as being an individual's basic needs. What does a family or individual need to live sufficiently? These would include income, housing and health services. In terms of income, a survey would consider disposable income and would need to establish the nature of this income (wage, pension, benefit etc.), the security of this income (regularity of payments, fluctuations, conditions on receipt of income) and how income is spent (proportion on food, rent, bills and personal items). Questions related to housing would include housing needs (homelessness, fixed location, overcrowding), terms of residency (home ownership, mortgage, private sector rent, social housing), condition of housing (property type, central heating, sanitation facilities) and surrounding environment (facilities, neighbouring properties). Health would look at access to healthcare (NHS doctors, dentists), birth and mortality rates (low birth weight babies, premature infant/adult death), health conditions and mental illness. An additional indicator relating to nutrition might also be considered. Rowntree's studies of poverty in York placed a great emphasis on adult diet and this would be a useful indicator in measuring poverty in the UK today. Therefore, data relating to adult and infant calorie intake, malnutrition and balance within diets would also be considered.

Secondly, we might look at factors which act as social and economic barriers. This means issues which might prolong poverty and limit opportunities. What might prevent individuals and families from being lifted out of poverty? Education, employment experience and access to services would fall into this category. Educational yardsticks could be academic qualifications (school education, post compulsory education, literacy, numeracy and computing skills) and professional qualifications (vocational qualifications). Employment would include a measure of whether an individual has access to work experience and to pathways into professions (careers guidance, work placements/internships, someone to provide job references). Attention would also be directed towards the access to services which allow individuals to take advantage of opportunities (car ownership, childcare provision, holding a bank account). Several key questions need to be asked. Does low educational achievement lead to unemployment, and consequently to poverty? Or, does poverty lead to low educational achievement? If a young person's family members do not work in a profession such as teaching or medicine is it more or less likely that the young person themselves will be excluded from these professions? Does a young person whose parents/guardians own and drive a car stand a better chance of being a car owner themselves in the future?

Finally, a survey might consider factors relating to inclusivity. This includes factors which might exclude individuals from taking a full part in society. Having a good quality of life goes beyond living sufficiently: it involves feeling part, and being able to be part of wider society. Often those living in poverty experience barriers which prevent them from participating in this sense. Indicators of this type of poverty might include the lack of computer/internet access, lack of technology (white electronic goods, telephones, a television), a lack of disposable income to spend on personal goods and leisure activities, or being unable to afford to keep a pet. Whilst these factors might be considered luxuries, it is surely the case that any form of deprivation should be described as a barrier which prevents full participation in social life. This is, therefore, a form of cultural poverty. Particularly in the modern age, the lack of a television or computer not only limits opportunities but also puts an individual at a disadvantage by denying them access to services, learning and entertainment.

These factors are obviously interrelated. But it is clear that the primary needs of an individual (income, housing and health) ought to be given more weight in any measure of poverty. The lack of one of these factors can often cause barriers (educational and employment) and lead to social exclusion. Take the example of a child living in an overcrowded house. A lack of space may impact upon sleep or hygiene, which in turn might have an impact upon schoolwork or homework. This might lead to the child being unable to fulfil their educational potential which might lead to a lack of future employment. Of course this is not always the case, but it easy to see how the failure to meet the basic needs of an individual can set in motion a chain of problems which might limit opportunities in other areas.

A factor which must be considered when exploring these indicators is choice. Surely part of living a "good life" means having the ability to choose? An essential part of being human involves having the right to make decisions for one's self. Having the ability to make choices and be master of your own life is psychologically vital as it empowers the individual. Therefore, being denied this right can often make an individual feel vulnerable, worthless and socially disenfranchised. Often those in poverty are denied choice. Whereas one person might choose between two career paths, another does not have the luxury of choosing but merely has to settle for the job which puts bread on the table. Whereas one family might agonise over which area to live in, another settles merely for bricks and mortar, hardly deserving of being called a home. Whereas the dilemna for one person might be which of the latest songs to download, for another person the choice is whether to spend that money on the download at all, or on a pint of milk. Patently the latter in each case is no choice at all.

Now here is the most difficult task. How to place the spotlight on poverty? How to put poverty at the top of the political agenda? The problem lies with the fact that public and political opinion is guided largely by a group of individuals who have hardly experienced disadvantage let alone true hardship. It is always galling to hear "the haves" telling "the have-nots" how to live their lives and listen to them arguing that underprivileged are architects of their own misery. Worse still is the way in which the "haves" encourage the condemnation of those in poverty by painting them as a monstrous scourge, almost an entirely different species, quite separate from the "hard-working" majority. Nobody chooses poverty. Nobody deserves to live in poverty. What is more, nobody dreams of actually being in employment but living poverty.

In order to tackle the issue of poverty, it is first necessary to counter the trend towards a resurrection of the nineteenth-century politics of individualism. Support provided to those in poverty ought not to be conditional in the sense that society will only help those who are willing to help themselves. The individual alone can do little to improve their situation without there being some significant change to social and economic structures.

The poverty index described could be used in two ways: it would draw attention to the flaws in current perceptions of poverty and it would highlight the specific areas in which the current support mechanisms are failing.

A survey into the nature, level and security of incomes would undoubtedly reveal that many of those living in poverty are not "scroungers" and in fact they make every effort to work to earn a living. Poverty is not confined to the jobless - many working families live in poverty and struggle to maintain homes and feed children. Clearly individual drive or motivation to work is not the problem. The failure lies in the wage system. How can it be fair that an individual who works still does not have enough to live on? The solution is obvious: the minimum wage should be substituted for a decent living wage.

An examination of housing provision would also expel the ridiculous assumption that those on lower incomes are given housing "freebies". Such ideas are merely borne out of ignorance. Many families have housing needs that are unmet. Many individuals have no fixed residence. Often individuals live without basic facilities such as showers and heating. Only by understanding the nature of current housing provision can the public and politicians begin to accommodate the need for affordable and good quality housing. A survey of housing would allow central and local government to work with housing associations, charities and the construction industry to focus their attention on the most pressing needs of individuals.

Assessment of education and employment would also help counter the many generalisations made about the motivations and aspirations of those living in poverty. It would demonstrate that the reasons many are on low incomes have little to do with a lack of education or a lack of employment-based skills. Also, it might reveal that where educational achievement is lower than expected, this is caused by a lack of financial resources or the lack of an adequate learning environment at home. Surely the problem is not a lack of personal motivation? It is the responsibility of the education system and employers to nurture an individual. Giving a person an opportunity of learning a new skill or developing existing ones can often make all the difference. Poverty is often the result of a failure to recognise and tend to the needs and talents of an individual.

If Beatrice Webb were alive today she would find that although the nature of poverty may have changed over the last century, it is perhaps just as prevalent. It is a shameful fact that whilst one sector of our society has experienced greater prosperity and opportunity than ever before, another group continues to experience a hardship which parallels a Victorian era we claim to have left behind. In years to come the question to ask should not be "How can we measure, and promote the issue of poverty?", but rather "What have we done to help bring an end to poverty?"

 

 

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 French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.