1970s >> 1978 >> no-885-may-1978

TV Review: The Poverty Trap

One thing that is not lacking under capitalism is public exposure and debate of the inescapable poverty that is the lot of the majority. This debate has been taken up by the television industry and the viewers are treated to no-holds-barred confrontations in which not only politicians take part but also those directly involved, landlord and tenant, employer and employee and so on. The general point of view is that things are grim now and the best that can be hoped for is that they do not get worse.

This point came over well in Are We Really Going To Be Rich? (April 4) the Yorkshire Television Production on ITV on the subject of North Sea Oil. Representatives of a mass of conflicting interests made up the studio audience and as if the talents of Jimmy Reid, Sir John Methven, Sir Keith Joseph, Lord Ballogh and all were not enough, no expense was spared to bring in the images of Tony Benn from London and participants from America including top of the pops economist Milton Friedman. Chairman David Frost saw to it that all (except Socialist) opinions were voiced. These ranged from the oil rig hand who wanted “full blooded socialism” (really milk and water state capitalism) to the capitalist who was well satisfied with his stake in North Sea Oil. Or Jimmy Reid who wanted the operators to be directed to buy British equipment, providing it was competitive and the American executive who complained of delays in the deliveries of it.

When it came to the question of what should be done with revenue the government were expecting to get from North Sea Oil, there was general agreement that it should be used to revive ‘British’ industry and reduce unemployment. The Tories wanted to do it by tax cuts and the Labourites by government ‘enterprise’. All seemed to agree that the most they expected was some form or other of capitalism with the wage labour and capital relation left intact. That is, all except Milton Friedman who showed what it takes to be a Nobel Prize winner. He proposed to make lump sum payments to turn us all into capitalists, as these assets belonged to the people, not the government. Apart from the fact that £5,000 as capital could not bring in enough income to enable even the stingiest person to live, capitalism needs workers to produce wealth. This modest handout would not change things, the majority would remain propertyless in the means of production; they are workers, not capitalists. Indeed it is the needs of capital to find a profit that dictated the form the debate took, with workers seeking work and capitalists (private and state) seeking profitable investments.

Any worker having the illusion that there are good times ahead, from an oil bonanza would have done well to learn the lessons of the BBC2 Horizon programme The New Breadline shown on Good Friday. There are, it was claimed, 7 million people living on or below the official poverty line, which has not changed substantially since that established by Seebohm Rowntree in 1899 based on a diet below that of the workhouse, and slightly amended in the 1930s. Also shown were the results — children sent to school without breakfast from Wednesday each week as the money has run out; children reduced to being dressed only in jumble sale clothing. Social isolation is another result, they cannot afford the fares to visit friends and relations; cannot afford their own drink, never mind the round that is mandatory among mates in a pub.

Among these 7 million are old age pensioners. People who, after a lifetime’s work, have insufficient income from pensions and savings to live above the official poverty line. Grinding poverty, with inadequate food, heating and so on is still the future most workers face in the evening of their lives. Then there are the unemployed, victims of the slump in world trade. For many it is their first taste of idleness after years of steady work. Many disabled people, and single parent families, are among the official poor. Even some workers with regular jobs earn wages below the poverty line. What is obvious is that the 7 million official poor belong to that section of society who have to work for wages in order to live; the working class. Most workers are but a couple of wage packets away from the situation of the official poor.

Poverty is therefore not restricted to those who are officially classified as such, it is the condition that workers in general are familiar with. Not mentioned in the programme were the people who not only never need go near a social security office, but never need worry about getting a job. The rich are not irrelevant to the question of poverty. The existence of one is the condition of the existence of the other. The wealth going to the rich of this world comes from the work of the poor. The rich own the means of production, the poor do not. The poor produce more than is required to maintain them as workers and this surplus keeps the rich. Be they old, lame, part of a single parent family, the rich need no supplementary benefits, least of all need they seek employment. The answer to David Frost’s question “Are we really going to be rich?’’ is obvious. There will be rich and poor as long as capitalism lasts.

Joe Carter