Friday, November 24, 2006

This woman earns a living as a political commentator

Polly Toynbee in the Grauniad:

If David Cameron takes up the Clark report, this would mark a breakthrough.

Tories would stop pretending that wealth trickles down from the top. They would never again claim that a rising economic tide lifts all boats. They would have to confess that no crumbs fell from the rich man's table during the disastrous 1980s and 1990s. In 1979 14% of children lived below the poverty line; that had risen to 33% by 1996. By denying that this yawning gap mattered, the Thatcher governments sent a century of social progress into reverse.

The Churchillian idea that all the state need do is provide a basic safety net to stop the poor starving is over. 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.

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.

Relative poverty has been a hard message to get across, so will the Tories now do some of the heavy lifting in engaging voters? Asked cold, the public tend to make a number of contradictory responses. They think the out-of-control greed at the top is obscene, and they think the gap between rich and poor is far too great. But the focus group of middling waverers used by the Fabian commission on life chances suggests that, at first, most people don't think real poverty exists. Then they think it is the fault of the poor themselves - feckless addicts or scroungers; if they have a phone and a TV, is that really poor?

But presented with facts about poor children having so much less than ordinary children like their own, focus group members changed their minds. 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.

If the Tories now say that degrees of inequality matter, then public attitudes can change. Labour may dare to use the I word - inequality. So far it has tended to describe poverty as difficult families: connect them to the jobs market and little else need change. But 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. But Labour has done little to change voters' attitudes.

. But 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.

What would it take to cut relative poverty? Most of the poor are in work, so first they need a minimum wage families can live on: if you eat in a restaurant where the dish washers can't support their children, then the price of the meal is too low. That means we all need to pay more for services to pay living wages. Will the Tories accept that? It means higher tax credits and benefits too. And it might mean giving everyone as a right their own home, once they have money to pay for the upkeep; that gives freedom and assets to borrow against for their children. However it's done, narrowing the gap must mean telling the well-off that their growth in earnings over the next few years should be slowed, and the money diverted so the rest can catch up. Otherwise the caravan breaks in two.

Incredible. According to Toynbee, taking more money away from middle-income people will allow everybody to have exactly the same level of wealth, which is essential to prevent the major social ill of the 21st Century: the ‘relative poor’ getting jealous enough to steal things from the middle-income people.


Duck said...

Relative poverty is a hard message because it essentially means that you are not allowed to strive for anything better than the average. If you move yourself ahead by hard work, then you are impoverishing those who do not. She would chain the underachiever to you financially, so that you are forced to pull them ahead with you.

When idealism ignores the most basic truths of human psychology, thruths obvious to kindergarten students, then it becomes a form of mental illness, in my opinion.

Brit said...

She also assumes that increased equality and increased contentment are directly related, so that the relative poor would wish to stop acquisition at the point where they reach parity with everybody else - an assumption for which there is no evidence at all.