'Holiday hunger’ and ‘period poverty’ campaigns risk forgetting what poverty really means

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I worry that in pointing at specific, uncontroversial things that people in poverty might spend their money on, Labour is storing up trouble. 

Fridays, as for most MPs, are surgery days. And with every surgery comes more avoidable misery inflicted by the Conservatives. Each week I meet people who are, through no fault of their own, not among the Prime Minister’s “just about managing” but instead among the “not really managing at all”, or “on the edge of catastrophe”.

In the north east at least, there are two obvious drivers of this. The first is the insecurity and insufficiency of decently paid employment, and the second is the whittling away of the support that the social security system should provide. Together they have ensured that in-work poverty is now common and almost a third of children in my city grow up in poverty. In one of the world’s richest countries, it is shameful.

Nicholas Timmins’ superb biography of the welfare state, Five Giants, is a powerful warning to those who would romanticise our unique social security system, so unlike those of most of our European neighbours. We should not forget that its central components were originally designed as an insurance system, and not either as a contributory system or as a system for redistributing wealth. Nor should we imagine that the rates of benefits which it provided were ever really enough for their supposed purposes. As long ago as 1965, the Child Poverty Action Group was writing to Harold Wilson asking the government to support their schemes to increase state help for the poorest families.

There was no golden age for the welfare state. The often confusing tapestry of entitlements that people have today has emerged from successive governments’ efforts to weave different principles and processes into an already complex system. You do not need to believe that Universal Credit is the solution, or that its roll out is an unqualified success, to believe that a degree of reform and rationalisation of our benefit system might have been in order by 2010.

Of course what came next was not reform but savagery. The scale and ferocity of the attack on the welfare state since 2010 by the Conservatives and their Liberal Democrat allies has been extraordinary. The utter cynicism of seeking to secure electoral success by setting people against one another; of separating so-called ‘strivers’ from ‘shirkers’, of taking money away from people who need it most and are least able to stand up for themselves, of whipping up distrust of a social security budget much of which goes to old aged pensioners: all of this has been sickening to observe. We are back to the historic misery of a system where conditionality is used not to prevent abuse, but to punish and humiliate, and where sanctioning is used to enforce fear; where there isn't anything like enough meaningful support to help people back into work.

This is the daily reality for far too many of the people I meet each week.

In the space where the social security system ought be operating there now blossom charities and social enterprises, campaigns and foundations. Foodbanks in particular have flourished in this Tory decade. It is to the enormous credit of volunteers that they have stepped in as the state has withdrawn. But it’s no surprise that Jacob Rees-Mogg finds the proliferation of foodbanks to be “rather uplifting”. By contrast, the chief executive of the Trussell Trust has made plain that she seeks to put her organisation out of business.

As well as foodbanks, there have been many campaigns to draw attention to how poverty impacts people and their families, in ways luckier citizens might not have noticed. Various colleagues have led immensely well-intentioned and often successful campaigns to draw attention to the cost of feeding children in the school holidays, when free school meals aren’t there to eke out the budget. They have highlighted the cost of sanitary products for women, especially students. But ‘holiday hunger’ and ‘period poverty’ campaigns, rather like the earlier notion of fuel poverty, leave me a little uneasy. Poverty is something that affects people, not specific goods.

That may sound banal, but to me it’s an important distinction. When the transfer of resources from rich to poor is in terms of objects, rather than money, it means that power isn’t being transferred. It’s paternalism and charity: not socialism. Power brings with it choice. Our Labour Party membership cards talk about the redistribution of power, wealth, and opportunity, not just hot meals and sanitary products; and our ambition needs to be much greater. While it is right and proper for us to draw attention to the consequences of poverty in terms of how kids aren’t able to have proper meals and how women aren’t able to study or work in dignity, I worry that in pointing at specific, uncontroversial things that people in poverty might spend their money on we are storing up trouble. More precisely, my concern is that despite the best of intentions, we risk reviving the deeply problematic distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor.

We all know that the main drivers of poverty are structural issues in our economy, rather than personal shortcomings. If we start seeking to support those in poverty in terms of specific things they might choose to spend their money on, rather than a more general belief that they should be better paid and better supported, we substitute our judgement for how money should be spent on them, for theirs. Food, hot meals, tampons, and school uniforms are all uncontroversial, “deserving” causes for charitable giving. But they aren’t enough: part of having power over your own life is choosing to spend money on things other people might not regard as always in your own best interests. Freedom means nothing if it doesn’t include the freedom to be undeserving, to choose to pay for things other people wouldn’t donate to you.

What’s more, food and sanitary products are currently relatively cheap. Although Brexit is starting to affect the cost of the weekly shop, ONS figures show that food prices have fallen since 2010, even if not yet back to pre-2008 levels. The issue is not that people don’t have enough money to buy food: the issue is that people don’t have enough money, full stop. Our ambition should be that every family has enough money to choose how to feed their children: not simply that they should have enough food to feed their children. We should start from the assumption that in most cases people living in poverty are best able to make decisions about how to distribute their resources. We tackle poverty by empowering people to exercise their own preferences, not by handing over to them our choice of food and our choice of meals for their kids. Our campaigns should be for people to be paid enough by their employers, and supported adequately when out of work, so that they can make these decisions themselves.

Back in 2012, Ed Miliband gave a major speech on how redistributive fiscal transfers weren’t enough, even when we could afford them, and how we needed to move away from being a low-wage economy with the social security system as the principal means of shifting money from the few to the many. We need instead, as he identified, to increase skills and increase real demand. The trouble, as with so many of our campaigns in those days, was that it carried a confusing, forgettable name – “predistribution” – and we then failed to campaign on it consistently.

Ed was right to identify the challenge: it’s unlikely that the next Labour government will enjoy the buoyant public finances of 2000-2008, but just as importantly, we should want everyone to make their own choices. Everyone should be able to raise their families in dignity. It would be totally inadequate - the reverse of our socialism - to live in a society where many of us had jobs, sufficient food, warm houses, free hot meals for our kids, and free sanitary products, but didn’t have money to spend as we saw fit on anything else. Equality in a free society is about power, not goods.

I know well that colleagues who campaign on specific ‘forms’ of poverty care deeply about building an equal society. I cannot stress enough that I mean no individual criticism whatsoever. I don’t imagine for a moment that any gift of food or anything else is unwelcome to families in desperate need, and I know too many families in my constituency who have ended up relying too often on the generosity of strangers. But I remain very wary of efforts to frame poverty in terms of the things it stops people buying, or to seek to alleviate those needs through interventions that supply them directly. Those of us who want to see poverty ended have a special responsibility to remember always what poverty means, for those who have to live in it. Poverty is a state of powerlessness, not only an absence of goods.

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