We look at different concepts of poverty, at the idea of social exclusion and at how governments have tried and failed to eradicate these.
Poverty need not imply destitution, the situation where a person simply cannot provide for themselves. Many asylum-seekers are forced to survive on £5 a day and so can genuinely be described as destitute, or as in absolute or extreme poverty. An alternative notion is that of relative poverty, living below a poverty line usually defined as a household receiving less than 60 percent of the median household income. Thus in 2011-12, the median household income in the UK was £23,200 (down from £24,100 in 2007-8): 60 percent of this would be £14,460. Naturally, such figures need to be adjusted to take account of differences in terms of family size and the cost of living in different parts of the country. That same year, more than one child in four lived in a household with income below the 60 percent poverty line after housing costs were taken into account. The extent of poverty is also revealed by increases in the numbers resorting to food banks and to petty shoplifting, even from pound stores, and by rises in cases of malnutrition treated in hospitals (over five thousand in 2012).
An alternative approach defines poverty in relation to typical living standards:
‘Individuals, families and groups in the population can be said to be in poverty when they lack resources to obtain the type of diet, participate in the activities and have the living conditions and amenities which are customary, or at least widely encouraged and approved, in the societies in which they belong’ (Peter Townsend, quoted from www.cpag.org.uk/content/what-is-poverty).
This is often described as social exclusion: ‘being unable to access the things in life that most people take for granted’ (definition from Age Concern). At the very least this would mean: decent housing which was not overcrowded and which people could afford to heat; eating healthy and nutritious food, without worrying about skimping towards the end of the week and resorting to food banks; buying warm and functional clothes, without relying on hand-me-downs and charity shops; access to good-quality health care; having the chance to perform useful and rewarding work; being able to afford bus and train fares; enjoying some basic leisure activities, such as a trip to the cinema or a day in the country; having an annual holiday that is more than just staying with relatives. Not too much to ask, you might think, given the capabilities of modern society, but in fact beyond the reach of millions.
In his 2010 book Injustice, Daniel Dorling claimed that one-sixth of households in Britain count as poor, with debt as the main problem that prevents them from affording necessities, arguing that ‘People spend and get into debt to maintain their social position not out of envy of the rich, but out of the necessity to maintain self-respect.’ You cannot keep up your self-respect if you truly are excluded from the normal standards of present-day living.
It is sometimes said, not just that the 60 percent figure is arbitrary, but that relative poverty, and the concept of social exclusion too, can give a very false impression, as under them people can still be regarded as poor even if their standard of living is well above that of poor people a generation or two before. And even those who are not destitute may have the use of gadgets and technology that did not even exist a couple of decades ago. If you have a big colour television, the argument goes, how can you be poor? One response is that you can still be socially excluded in the way sketched above; another would be that the comparison should be with the very richest people in society, who have prospered very nicely in spite of the recession; and finally, that the true comparison should be with the possibilities for life in a socialist world.
Reformist governments have of course addressed the problem of poverty. In 1999 Tony Blair proclaimed a commitment to eradicate child poverty by 2020, but this has not been going well, with the interim target of halving child poverty by 2010-11 being missed. It was only cut by about a third, and even this reduction was partly due to a drop in the median income and hence the poverty line being lower. And as in other areas, government terminology did not quite mean what it appeared to. Just as ‘full employment’ does not imply that everyone who wants a job has one, so ‘eradicating’ child poverty does not mean getting rid of it altogether. Rather, it was intended that fewer than 10 percent of children should live in families below the poverty line.
This specific target, along with others, was enshrined in Labour’s Child Poverty Act of March 2010. The other big parties supported it, though the Tories complained that it tackled the symptoms of poverty rather than the causes. Shortly after the 2010 election, when poverty statistics for 2008-9 were published, Iain Duncan Smith stated:
‘Millions of children, adults and pensioners are daily experiencing the crushing disadvantage that poverty brings. They are living at the margins of society, unable to achieve their aspirations and trapped in dependency. … Vast sums of money have been poured into the benefits system over the last decade in an attempt to address poverty, but today’s statistics clearly show that this approach has failed.’
The point about dealing with symptoms rather than causes was correct, but that after all is essentially what every government does. The Tory idea of the causes of poverty is also rather different from that of socialists: Duncan Smith later argued that the Labour government ‘did not do enough to make work pay’, though he is of course not suggesting that the Coalition should act to increase wages.
The cause of poverty, however defined, is not that the benefits system encourages dependency and undermines any ambitions that people have. Nor is it that the tax system penalises those who earn relatively little when they start earning a bit more. The fundamental cause is the way that society is organised, with a small minority owning the means of production and the overwhelming majority forced to sell their labour power for a wage in order to survive. The degree of inequality this gives rise to is scarcely credible: the five richest families in Britain own more wealth then the poorest fifth of the population.
To be more accurate, workers are forced to attempt to sell their labour power, since there will not always be a capitalist in a position to exploit a worker and therefore willing to employ them. Workers may sometimes be able to maintain a reasonable standard of living, while at other times they may be excluded from what is by any criterion a basically acceptable way of life. But we are always excluded from true empowerment over our lives and those of our families – and that is not something that can be achieved under the present social system.