Friday, June 12, 2015

When talking of poverty, we should remember that we are generally talking about people with mobile phones and TV sets, not people in rags

Of course some people are in genuine need, 
acknowledges the Daily Telegraph's James Bartholomew (thanks to Instapundit),
but it is nothing compared to previous generations — who would kill to be poor in today's society.

The word “poverty” is bandied about as never before. Labour politicians, columnists for The Guardian and The Independent, representatives of charities such as Oxfam, use the term repeatedly, suggesting that poverty in Britain is a major and even a growing problem. Very rarely does anyone on radio or television dare challenge this idea. But what do we mean by the word “poverty” today? And how does our idea of poverty compare with that of the past?

 … As for food, “fresh meat was a luxury only seen in a few of the cottages on a Sunday”. People mostly depended on bread and lard. “Fresh butter was too costly for general use” and “milk was a rare luxury”.

Shoes and boots were barely affordable, to the extent that “how to get a pair of new boots for 'our young Ern or Alf ’ was a problem which kept many a mother awake at night”. Obtaining clothes was “an even more difficult matter” so that “it was difficult to keep decently covered”. Labourers sipped their beer slowly in the evening because they could only afford half a pint. The girls were sent out to be servants in richer households when they were between 11 and 13.
Going back further in time to the beginning of the 19th century, many ordinary people could not afford shoes at all and wore clogs instead. People died of starvation in 1846/47 in Scotland as well as in Ireland during the potato famine. Indeed, Britain was affected by more than 95 famines in the Middle Ages, such as the one in 1235 when about 20,000 Londoners died of starvation and many resorted to eating tree bark in an attempt to survive.

From all this it is clear that the relatively poor of today are vastly richer than the poor of 120 years ago, let alone beforehand. Indeed, at least one leading figure in the Labour Party acknowledged the fact in 1959. Barbara Castle remarked, “the poverty and unemployment which we came into existence to fight have been largely conquered”. Since she spoke, of course, average incomes have risen much higher. As recently as the 1980s people looked at the figures for how many households had inside lavatories and how many had fridges. Now virtually every household has these things, so nobody bothers with the information any more.

Given all this, how is it that so many pundits and charities talk about widespread poverty in Britain?

It dates back to 1962 and the annual conference of the British Sociological Association. Two Left-wing academics, Peter Townsend and Brian Abel-Smith, developed a new way of defining “poverty” based on the income level at which people were entitled to a payment called “supplementary benefit”. One person at the conference reported “a mood of conspiratorial excitement” about the idea of redefining poverty. These are her words, not mine, and they do seem revealing. It is as if some people on the Left were longing to find a way in which poverty had not been “conquered” as Barbara Castle had said. They had found a way in which it would always be possible to use the huge emotional power of the word.

The flurry of excitement about redefining poverty concluded with it being defined as 60 per cent of median incomes with adjustment for family size. This definition was eventually accepted by the British government and the European Union. That is the definition which those who talk about poverty in the media are using.

 … How many households cannot afford a television? Fewer than 1 per cent. How many people aged 16-24 do not have access to a mobile phone? 1 per cent. Who has access to computers and the internet? Among those aged 25-44, 85 per cent use a computer daily. Added to those who use computers less frequently, that means well over nine in 10 young adults have access to a computer.

Overall, the typical person in modern poverty has access to a mobile phone and lives in a household with a television, an inside lavatory, electricity and probably access to the internet. By all means, observers can call this poverty. But it would have been unrecognisable to Flora Thompson. It is riches beyond their dreams for those I have met in a Masai Mara village in Kenya who live in mud huts with not a single one of the above.

Yes, of course there are still people in awful circumstances who need help. There are those who lose their jobs, who get divorced and have mental health problems. It can be awful if several of these things happen at the same time. People struggle and can end up on the streets. But the living conditions of the majority of relatively low earners are unrecognisably better than in the past.

Of course, we should continue to be concerned for the relatively poor and seek ways to help them or enable them to help themselves. But when we hear a mention of “poverty” we should keep a sense of proportion. We should remember that we are generally talking about people with mobile phones and televisions, not people in rags. They are not in a different world to the rest of us. The redefinition of poverty was a bit of a con-trick by the Left. It has led us to care far too much about inequality and not enough about rising prosperity. And it is economic growth that is the real route to greater prosperity, for the relatively poor and everyone else too.