For the most part we’re told a pretty simple story on poverty. Those who are poor are feckless, idle, and wasteful, those who are rich are sensible, hard-working, and prudent. Most will be familiar with stories of the luxurious lifestyles those on ‘benefits’ apparently lead, groaning under the weight of new TVs, designer trainers and the latest non-essential frippery. You’ll also be familiar with stories of the savvy ‘middle class’ (i.e. those on £150,000, or to you and me, the richest 1%) looking for the best options to squirrel away a nest egg for their retirement.
The problem with this concept of poverty isn’t that it appears to adopt ‘man in a pub’ anecdotes as it’s basis, it’s that it also wilfully, almost vindictively, ignores evidence that contradicts it.
Every year the Office of National Statistics produces its Family Spending publication, a huge tome of data on the spending habits of households, broken down by income decile. It’s a hugely detailed account of household spending, and it provides a perfect opportunity to test these claims of rich diligence and poor profligacy.
So do the poor waste their money on spending splurges? Not exactly, in fact, the richest 10 per cent of households spend more per week on furniture and furnishings (£43.40), than the poorest spend on food (£30.40). It’s possible to argue that poverty is about reckless lifestyle choices and wasteful spending, but that’s a hard argument to make when the richest appear to spend more on scatter cushions than the poorest do on feeding their families.
‘What about those expensive trainers?’ you might ask. Well the richest spend more on their pets (£9.20 a week) then the poorest do on clothing and footwear (£6.70). ‘OK, it’s the money they waste on booze and fags then,’ nope, the richest 10 per cent spends as much on alcohol and tobacco each week as the poorest does on their gas and electricity bills (£18.70). Unconvinced? Let’s try one more. The richest 10 per cent spends more on wine (£8.70 per week) than the poorest spends on water bills (£6.90).
Anyone who has lived in poverty, or who even has a passing interest in its causes and its symptoms, knows that it is not a life of luxury, it is a life of hard, daily grind. The decisions people make are about whether to heat their kid’s food or keep the radiator on, not on whether to buy Nike or Adidas.
As inconvenient and embarrassing as it may be to some, real deprivation does exist in our modern, wealthy country. And despite worrying plans by the Government to redefine poverty as an issue of access to opportunity, poverty is still very much an issue of income.
Poverty and deprivation also tells us a lot about how grotesquely unequal our country has become. As the rungs on the ladder have widened, it’s become harder and harder to move up. More importantly, it has become harder for people to see those below them as worthy of respect and support. A more equal society is one that treats poverty as an unacceptable stain on our conscience, and a vital challenge to overcome. An unequal one shrugs its shoulders and says it’s a result of poor people being lazy and buying tat. That’s not good enough, and we owe it to ourselves and others to have a far more honest debate about the reality of poverty.