Thursday 19 October 2017

Destitution: Britain's shame

Poverty is easy to describe - not having  enough resources to live a decent lifestyle - but difficult to be precise about.

In Britain today Winstanley's " poorest he*" has access to clean water, adequate sanitation, free schooling for his children and a first-rate health service - services that most of even  the comfortably-off in the Third World would give their eye teeth for. 

Clearly poverty is relative to the "norm"  in the society in which you live.  In Britain we define the acceptable minimum as having a household income of at least two thirds of the median.

The nature of the  "acceptable minimum" changes over time.  Today it probably incudes some sort of mobile phone for each child over 11, whereas in my youth it was perfectly acceptable, actually normal , for the household to have no kind of phone at all  -  nor fridge, nor washing machine nor, for many of us,  bathroom and indoor lavatory.  Maybe some children try to bully their parents into believing that "acceptable" today incudes broadband access, designer clothes and a foreign holiday.

Last week the Guardian's tabloid section gave a run-down on the current status of the "Five Giants" that tthe famous (and Liberal) Beveridge Report of precisely 75 years ago  set out to conquer.  Prominent on Beveridge's list was poverty, which he called "Want" (with a capital "W")

Today's figures are disturbing, to say the least.  Seventy-five years after the conquest was announced, and in what some proudly boast of as "the fifth largest economy in the world" four million of our children, some 15%, are now living in poverty as defined above.  This figure is predicted to rise to more than 18% by 2020/21 as a result of the government's current policies

If we are tempted to shrug our shoulders and say that's all relative, then the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has coined an new category - destitution.  The definition is frightening, and incudes anyone  who has faced two or more of the following in one month:

  • been sleeping rough;
  • had only one or no meals for two days or more;
  • been unable to light  or heat  their home  for five or more days;
  • been without weather-appropriate clothing or basic toiletries.
Across 2015 over one and a quarter million people, or 2% of our population experienced destitution as so define.  The figure included 312 000 children.

In an economy in which the GDP per capita (shared equally between each man, woman and child) is $42,500 (2016 est.) which, even at the present miserable exchange rate amounts to over £32 000 a head, it is difficult to find a word strong enough to express our shame.

* as defined in the 17th Century, but would now include the more numerous "she'"

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