Despite George Osborne’s recent claims, poverty in Britain is growing. Driven by an increasingly fragile jobs market, the rise of insecure work and a more punitive benefits culture, poverty levels have been rising for a generation. Whatever measure is used, poverty levels are much higher than in the 1970s. They are also close to double the average of other rich countries.
Deprivation levels are higher today than in the late 1990s. Today more households live in a damp home while three times as many cannot afford to heat their home adequately. The numbers who skimp on meals is at a 30 year high. The poorest fifth in Britain are 40% poorer than their counterparts in Germany and 30% poorer than in France.
Britain is an increasingly divided nation. While affluence, comfort and an array of choice is the norm for many sections of society, daily hardship and struggle is the lot of a large and growing cluster of the population. Close to a third (more than three out of five them in work) not only lack a range of key, publicly-defined necessities, but suffer multiple, related problems as well, from damaged health, fragile finances and declining work and housing opportunities. On current trends this great divide in living standards is set to worsen over the next five years. Britain is now close to the American model, extreme affluence aside growing and deepening hardship, with the poorest facing a declining prospect of progressing beyond the barest of living standards.
Growing affluence for most is, remarkably, associated with rising, rather than falling, hardship for a significant and growing minority. This inverse relationship is being is driven by surging inequality, with the gains from growth over the last thirty bypassing the poorest, colonised instead by the top 1 percent and playing havoc with jobs, pay, housing and life chances for the poorest.
Ministers gloss over the realities of modern life for millions while creating a political culture that is more anti-poor rather than anti-poverty. Despite this, poverty is barely an election issue. In the 1980s, Mrs Thatcher banned her cabinet and civil servants from using the ‘P` word. Despite Michael Gove’s call on his party to become ‘warriors against the dispossessed`, the poor are again being written out of the political script.
In 2010, all the parties signed up to the 2010 Child Poverty Act, with its legal obligation to cutting poverty levels by 2020. Yet in Government the coalition parties have simply ignored the Act and tried to redefine poverty levels downwards while dismissing rising deprivation as self-inflicted.
After the war, economic and social policy was guided by the ‘distribution question’. Yet the once central question of how we divide the cake – dismissed as ‘poisonous’ by one leading pro-market thinker – has simply been eliminated from economic thinking. Today there is plenty of talk about inequality, but neither of the major parties has a clear strategy for closing the gap and reversing the rising poverty tide. Despite Gove’s call, the Conservatives promise a further weakening of Britain’s increasingly patchy safety net. Labour will slow the pace of retrenchment in welfare spending while offering a modest increase in the minimum wage and a bit more tax on the rich. Over the next five years, the existing anti-poor and pro-rich social and economic system is thus set to remain intact, still programmed to steer more and more of the cake to the wealthy few
If we are to reverse the rising poverty tide, we need a new direction, one that steers more of the cake to profits and less to wages, one that ends the culture of entitlement still at work in the City and company boardrooms and that tackles the issue of the over-concentration of private ownership in the UK. This means a much more direct challenge to the entrenched corporate and financial vested interests that continue to dictate large chunks of economic policy, while diminishing wider life chances.
Poverty and inequality are two of the most urgent issues of the day. Yet, in today’s climate of political inertia, with its bias to the status quo and its fear of radical change, the kind of policies that would make a real difference are not even part of the election debate. Until that inertia is challenged, and the talk turned to action, poverty and inequality will continue to intensify.
Stewart Lansley is the author (with Joanna Mack) of Breadline Britain, The Rise of Mass Poverty, Oneworld.