Friday, 2 July 2010

Two Questions of Perception

Polly Toynbee has an excellent analogy to describe that aspect of our society which really is broken - the fact that some 20% of our fellow citizens are getting left further and further behind. Toynbee compares this to a caravan in the desert. First the rear 20% lag behind but are still part of the same caravan. If they get too far behind they become a separate caravan. This is what is happening to our "underclass" today.

Until I read the Guardian's leader last Monday, ("Bending the yardstick" (28th June, 2010) I had supposed that Toynbee's excellent image was of a caravan composed of camels. The Guardian, who presumably know best, referred firmly to trucks, which in my view are not nearly so picturesque.

The leader is well worth a read, but one dangerous proposal it doesn't mention is a move to change the measurement of poverty from the present comparative definition of, I believe, less than 60% of median income, to some arbitrary absolute level of income.

Poverty is the inability to participate at least to some extent in what is regarded as "normal" by society. Hence a child without access to television in the home or an indoor bathroom and lavatory would today be regarded as poor, whereas these and much else that we take for granted today (telephones, refrigerators, regular holidays) were available only to the better off sixty years ago. Very few people in Britain today are poor in the absolute, Third World, sense of lacking the basic necessities for survival. Even those on relatively modest incomes live in the lap of luxury compared with the lifestyles of our grandparents.

A redefinition of poverty to an absolute level of income would mean that the rear 20% of the Toynbee's caravan, camels or trucks, would fall further and further behind without our noticing, a retrograde step in the progress towards the coalition's stated aim of a fairer and more equal society

1 comment:

  1. I think this goes to the heart of the `fork in the road` that the Lib Dems as the fulcrum of British politics will face once the deficit is reduced.

    Do they take `distributionalist` measures that mean that with an ever increasing wealth benefits go up in a distributionalist way in which case the `working poor` and the `working time poor` rebel (against the Lib Dems electorally) or do we take the `enablist state route` whereby we give a hand up to those that want, look after those that genuinely can't and allow those that can but won't to be part of the `rear 20%`

    Whatever way you look at it full benefit reform has to come about - if you're looking for a Swedish Social Democratic model you'd need to be strict on working to keep society together and to fund the largesse, if you're looking for the `germanic` `pale blue centrist` model you'd need to keep benefits in check as a prod to keep wealth being generated.

    Neo-Keynesianism was ill-served by Labour - the aspirant low and middle-incomers think it has been a failure (which it has)as it had money as its core value - ie `how much income do you have?` whereas a better rule would be class sizes, education opportunities, health responsibilities etc

    There was an interview on R4 with Southwark residents that summed it up for me as regards benefits not going up as much as the RPI - `how will I buy all my fags?` asked one elderly lady - another said `they're freezing child benefit - I won't be able to do such and such` while another commentator bemoaned the fact that the HB might not be able to contribute 100% to peoples rent anymore - ie a cut-off at £1600 pcm!

    My advice to those people is a) smoke less b) child benefit is for the child c) Move!

    I did have sympathy with the lady that had taken part-time work but might not be quids in - I heard Clegg say that they'd tinker with the system to introduce tapering.

    The problem with the SLF analysis is that it looks at discrimination and the barriers to income from a very old-fashioned perspective - ie `how can we get more money from the rich` rather than looking at it in the round at the encouragement of self-reliance and responsibility, about how individuals can change themselves and left-wing privilege through unions and Labour councils that pit one group of low paid workers against another for the benefit of a `left elite`.