Life and Times – Poverty amid plenty
Some time ago, while visiting my son and his family in the London area, we called in to see Ollie, one of my son’s friends who he’s known since his schooldays. Ollie has done incredibly well in conventional terms, in fact he’s become a multi-millionaire, living in a penthouse overlooking Park Lane. I hadn’t been there before and it sort of took my breath away – the sumptuous décor, the maid, the children’s nanny, the original Bob Dylan sketches on the wall. It was my first brush with this kind of wealth. Ollie’s background had been pretty humble, but after his education he’d got into trading in oil pipes, the ones that send oil from the Middle East flowing in all directions to fuel cars, heating appliances and much else. He was immensely wealthy, but to me he was the same young lad I’d known as my son’s school friend. He didn’t behave any differently either and I couldn’t envy him or begrudge him his wealth.
But, when after a couple of hours we said our goodbyes and went down in the lift to the street below, the first thing I saw hit me like a sledgehammer. At distances of around 100 yards apart, there were three dishevelled young men sitting on the pavement with signs in front of them asking passers-by for money. One, I remember clearly, said ‘Lost job, lost home, need money for food’. Of course I already knew the absurdity of a society that was actually wealthy enough in terms of resources and productive capacity to feed, clothe and house everyone on the planet to a perfectly comfortable level, yet still divided its wealth up in an insanely unequal way. But that was sort of in the abstract. Here was the absolute concrete reality, immense wealth and absolute destitution in virtual plain sight of each other.
Trickle-down, my foot
Given that this happened a few years ago and the ‘growth’ imperative of the society we live in means that the amount of wealth and goods and services available has actually increased since then, one might have expected that at least a small part of that wealth might have ‘trickled down’ to the lower end. But far from that happening, it seems, from various recent sources, that the very opposite has taken place.
To start ‘from the bottom’, so to speak, that is with homelessness and ‘rough sleeping’, a BBC news website report entitled ‘Cardiff’s homeless community grieving death of friend’, revealed that Richard O’Brien, ‘nicknamed Paddy’, had been the third rough sleeper to die on the streets of Cardiff in 2023 and that the city’s hostels were full and housing waiting lists were ‘absolutely unprecedented’ – the latter caused mainly by people being subjected to so-called ‘no fault’ evictions by landlords wishing to sell their properties or to bring in new tenants with higher rents.
Then, as we climb up the chain to what might be called ‘lesser deprivation’, the numbers get much bigger. A report by the Barnardo’s charity stated that ‘more than a million children in the UK either sleep on the floor or share a bed with parents or siblings because their family cannot afford the “luxury” of replacing broken frames and mouldy linen’ and that ‘the rise in “bed poverty” reflects growing levels of destitution in which low-income families already struggling with soaring food or gas bills often find they are also unable to afford a comfortable night’s sleep’.
Slightly higher up the chain, a report by Ian Aikman of Which? Magazine, conducted at the end of 2023, showed a sharp increase in the number of households defaulting on ‘essential payments’ (eg, loans, credit cards, energy bills) and eight in ten being worried about energy prices, food prices and fuel costs. One in six had skipped meals due to high food costs and a quarter went without at least some food. And the 2023 Autumn statement from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reported that two million households in Britain had in recent months turned off their fridge or freezer in order to save energy and money.
Can governments help?
Why is all this happening and why aren’t governments, who most people think should serve their populations, doing anything about it? Well, the simple fact is that, even if they wanted to, they couldn’t, since the economic system we live in, capitalism, distributes the means of living based on who owns the means of production and who has the most market power, rather than according to any principle of rationality, fairness or human need. The job of governments is just to oversee that system. So the recent suggestion by John Bird, founder and editor-in-chief of the Big Issue, that the government should tackle the issue by setting up a Ministry of Poverty, is just as doomed to failure as the pledge by the Shelter charity, when it was first set up in 1966, to end homelessness in Britain within 10 years. Shelter is of course still ‘going strong’ and, in 2023, it stated that ‘the number of people living in temporary accommodation has risen by an alarming 74% in the last 10 years’. The centre-right think-tank, the Centre for Social Justice, confirmed something similar when it found that ‘the most disadvantaged people in Britain were no better off than they were 15 years ago’, with around 13.4 million people living lives ‘marred by family fragility, stagnant wages, poor housing, chronic ill health and crime’. Of course millions of workers do manage to keep their heads above water, some living reasonably comfortable lives, but even this is usually at the cost of working hard for an entire lifetime, never being truly free of financial insecurity and often at great cost to the quality of their lives.
The complaint is not that the very rich, whose wealth comes from ownership or control of resources, have so much more than everyone else but that it comes at the expense of everyone and everything else. Without any personal condemnation of people such as Ollie, or even of those wealthy tourists who the Guardian recently reported as queuing up to book into ‘London’s £1,000-plus a night super-luxe hotels’ (some of them actually costing £10,000 or £20,000 a night), what the scenarios we have described above show is that we cannot trust the anarchic, irrational, market system we live under to fulfil even the most basic human needs such as clean, dry, warm, decent housing for everyone. That system, dedicated as it is to producing profit for the tiny minority of the population, is simply not designed to cater for the needs of the majority, let alone for the most deprived members of that majority.