Something terrible is slowly happening across the face of Britain. We are seeing the return of absolute levels of poverty which have not existed on this scale since the Victorial age over a century ago. Relative poverty is when people can’t afford the comforts and enjoyments which most people have, but absolute poverty is when people haven’t the money to pay for even their most basic needs. The evidence is all around us.
There are now over 300 food-banks in Britain, and the number is rising every week. The Red Cross is setting up centres to help the destitute, just as they do in developing countries. A new study published this week shows that even in prosperous area of the country like London, more than a quarter of the population are now living in poverty. And a new scary fact is steadily emerging: an increasing number of these poverty households are not dependent on benefits, but where someone is at work.
In the north the first of the Northern Housing Consortium’s surveys just published presents a devastating picture. It is based on 74 househoolds, a small sample but one which broadly reflects all households living in the social rented sector.
It reveals that two-thirds, after paying for rent and food and other essential bills, end up each week with less than £10 left, whilst more than a third end up with nothing at all. A quarter can only afford £20 or less on food per week – how many of the rest of us could survive on that? Four-fifths of them are in debt, and not small levels of debt either – it averages nearly £2,500.
Some of the responses are heart-rending. Take this one: “Hate the system. I have worked all my life and because work is so hard to find, I have been taking anything. I had a phone call one night and was offered 3 days work starting the next day. I did it, then went to the job centre to tell them I had earned 3 days money. They fined me for not telling them sooner, but I couldn’t as I’d had to start at 7.30am the next morning.
Then I put a new claim in, then got another 3 days work. This has been on and off for months. I hate not working and will take what I can, but now this has messed all my benefits up and I’m getting fined. They stop my money and I have to sell things to pay bedroom tax and council tax. I am going to have nothing left at this rate. How can this be right when all I am trying to do is find a job?”
What makes this so gratuitously cruel for the victims is that it isn’t even necessary. The pain is enforced, but the budget deficit is not being reduced. The right way to cut the deficit is by public investment to stimulate the economy, cut the dole queues (it now costs £18bn a year to keep the current 2.5 million unemployed out of work), and kickstart growth to turn the economy around, which the present fragile so-called ‘recovery’ is certainly not doing. Then, and only then, will the bitter scourge of absolute poverty be removed from this land.