Playing catch-up on poverty

Lots of fun and games this week on the subject of “absolute” vs “relative” poverty, following comments by the Tory MP for Tunbridge Wells, Greg Clark, and now the leader of the Conservative Party himself, David “Dave” Cameron, on the need to move away from Winston Churchill’s approach to poverty – namely, a basic safety net to keep people from literally starving, but little more than that – to one closer to the philosophy of that Guardianista-of-Guardianistas, Polly Toynbee.

Polly Toynbee managed to avoid crowing too much in an excellent column in yesterday’s Guardian. Instead, she reminds us of why “relative” poverty is an important concept – contrary to those who take the view that, provided people are better off than those in the worst squalor of Victorian England, there is no problem with poverty today (“They all have colour TVs, don’t they?”):

Poverty is measured internationally in relative terms, because that is how people feel it. To be poor is to fall too far behind what most ordinary people have in your own society.

Toynbee uses a powerful image from one of her books, cited by Greg Clark in his own comments, to show why relative poverty matters:

Clark cites an analogy from my book, Hard Work: Life in Low Pay Britain, in which I described society as a caravan moving across a desert. All may move forward, but how far behind do the poor at the back have to fall before they cease to be part of the same caravan at all? Political parties will differ on how far that stretch can be – but at least now they agree all must travel at the same speed to stay within the same society.

Toynbee goes on to examine the difficulties of communicating the concept of relative poverty. Research by the Fabian Society indicates that many people take the view that poverty today is “the fault of the poor themselves – feckless addicts or scroungers”. But when people are presented with the facts of what modern poverty looks like, they change their minds. And the examples cited by Toynbee certainly made me wake up and take notice:

When they considered the quarter of children who never go on a summer holiday and have no money to go swimming, have a birthday party or a sleepover or take school trips, let alone own a computer or a mobile phone, they thought it unjust.

They thought it wrong that children avoid teachers’ questions about what they did in the holidays, avoid collections of money, avoid PE for lack of the right kit. They understood the pain of being at the bottom of the pecking order from day one at school. Relative poverty is a dry phrase – but make it real and people feel for children born with their noses pressed against society’s window.

There is more joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, of course, and the Tories certainly have to do a lot of repenting on this issue: when Mrs Thatcher came to power in 1979, 14% of children lived below the poverty line. By 1996, the last full year of the Tory government, that number had risen to 33%.

Labour has presided over its own further rise in inequality, but much good has been achieved:

By stealth Labour has lifted 700,000 children above the poverty line, with most estates and schools much improved, generous tax credits and programmes such as Sure Start transforming lives.

The problem is that “Labour has done little to change voters’ attitudes” – note those words, “by stealth” – and in particular has shied away from words such as “inequality”, with their perceived “socialist” overtones. But the Tories’ shift of position on this issue now gives Labour the opportunity to be bolder:

Here is the opportunity for Labour to stop appeasing old Tory sentiments and say outright that gross inequality is a key reason for so much social dysfunction.

As for the Tories, the test now is whether “Cameron really [is] ready to face down his own CBI, with the Mail and Telegraph shrieking ‘Tax burdens!’ every day”. As Toynbee concludes:

So let’s see if this pig flies.

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