I belong to a small internet list that is made up of socialists who are not affiliated to any political party or organization. They are a decent bunch of people most of whom are involved politically working within their local communities, Trade Unions, NGO’s and various campaigns such as Stop the War, supporting immigrants, anti racism etc. Whilst there is not a great deal of traffic on the list, an interesting debate has developed around poverty and whether or not people in the UK are actually suffering poverty, especially in comparison to those who live in the Third world.
A newcomer to the list has over turned the apple-cart somewhat by suggesting that he sees few real signs of what most people regard as poverty in the UK. As even the most hard up families seem to have a TV, mobile phone and video recorder and when he visited the shops after Christmas they were choc-a-bloc with consumers both middle and working class, hunting for bargains in the New Year sales.
This outraged some people, who reminded this chap that the language he used was not that dissimilar to that which appears regularly in the Daily Mail and other right wing newspaper; and the implication of such thinking is to end up accusing the ‘economically’ less well off as being responsible for their own predicament due to their supposed fecklessness etc. That the media and mainstream politicians use the term ‘the poor’ to describe people who have very little or no money is no accident, as the use of this word dates back to Dickensian days if not before and is deliberately designed to belittle this group of workers who live on very low incomes. If you doubt me look up the word ‘poor’ in a dictionary and amongst many others you will find its definition will include unproductive, needy, humble, inadequate, deficient, impecunious, inferior, cowardly and feckless. All of which suggest that the economically poor will always be with us not because there is a major flaw within the capitalist system but due to the fecklessness and inability of these people to fend for themselves.
Others who have joined in the debate have reminded us of how when they visit the local Municipal rubbish tip they see countless individuals dumping perfectly good and usable tables, chairs, fridges, televisions etc, and were these items dumped in the Third World they would quickly be repaired and recycled. I’m not really sure what this has to do with poverty in the UK as this type of waste is a direct consequence of the consumer society we live in and governments mad rush for growth without givingng a thought to the consequences.
Whilst some people undoubtedly dump perfectly useable household goods at the municipal tip, this seems to me to be only one side of the coin, for if one goes into any city or town center these days there is an abundance of charity and second hand goods shops; and for the first time in decades the hated Pawnbroker’s sign has returned to the High Street. Which in itself is an indictment of the greater inequality that exists today and how quickly people can fall into the poverty trap.
I worry about how deepinto the national consciousness the continuos barrage of propaganda we get about the economically poor being feckless and worthless has cut . For if some amongst a good hearted group of lefties are somewhat sympathetic to arguments along the aforementioned lines, one gets a general idea of what the general populations consciousness must be like on this issue.
My own opinion for what it is worth is that there is gross and widespread poverty in the UK and it is increasing by the day. True it is not the same type of poverty that billions of people suffer from in the Third World, but in many ways it is as destructive and has much the same impact, i e stunted, difficult and blighted lives. If anyone really still doubts there is a high level of poverty in the UK, I suggest they hunt out the statistics on the numbers of people who live on a sum of money that is below the average wage; and then work down statistically to the numbers who exist entirely on the minimum wage and below and they will see that these numbers are not inconsiderable.
But in any case, for those of us on the left, poverty has always been about much more than bread on the table, it is also about the lack of opportunity and a fair crack at life’s chances that are inherent where-ever one finds economic poverty no matter what the degree. Thus it is impossible to argue against the fact that poverty exists in the UK and to my mind it is the most exploitative kind.
Some may try and console themselves by the fact that at least poverty is not as absolute in the UK as it is in places like Dhaka, Mumbai or Hyderabad. Myself I feel this in itself should make us doubly outraged, for the economies in some of the nations in which abject poverty holds sway, have been economic basket cases for decades and more, on top of which they have the legacy of Empire, corrupt politicians and undemocratic political structures. Whereas the UK, or so we are led to believe, is a modern democracy and the fourth richest nation on earth, thus to still have great poverty here as we undoubtedly do, is totally unacceptable and unforgivable. Indeed all right thinking people should regard such levels of poverty that exist as a national shame and disgrace. That many do not again highlight how effective the medias non stop blitz about the ‘feckless poor’ have been.
One of the main problems with the human race, especially the English, is we find it extremely difficult to put ourselves in another persons shoes, thus if we are not experiencing poverty ourself we often find it hard to sympathies and understand those who do. Thus we look for human weaknesses to explain their plight, rather that seeing what is before our very eyes. A child born into poverty is no more feckless stupid or lazy than a child of the middle classes or the economically rich. To suggest otherwise is simply to spout the opportunist garbage that is put out daily by the gofers of Capital in the government and media.