Sunday, 20 January 2013

The poor get poorer and the rich get richer but let's blame the poor.

There are some no doubt who won't really care about the poor in the UK until they are homeless in the streets with bloated starvation bellies. I guess it will wait for a 'live aid' concert by rich pop stars with crass lyrics to tell the world that the poor in the UK need feeding. Since writing my piece on the cuts in benefits driving 200,000 more children into poverty, at least a few have questioned me about 'what real poverty means'. It is the 'yes but' kind of argument. Poverty they say is 'relative'. No it is absolute. It is absolute because of its effects on inequality and opportunity.

Poverty, particularly in childhood, produces a cycle of poor health and lack of opportunities to break out of the chain. Poor health blights a generation through poor educational attainment and poor job prospects. Poverty, bad housing and undernourishment create a cycle of poverty handed on across generations. The cost of the coalition's policies is difficult to calculate, but over time with increasing burdens of poor productivity and of ill-health and the consequent impact on health and social services, the cost in terms of resources will be immense. It is a foolish and short-sighted approach. But it is also cruel. It blights the lives of a generation and more.

The truth is the politicians won't touch the middle class. That is where the votes really count. For decades now, politically the poorest have been ignored; an underclass economically, without effective political representation. If only we could distribute them to some key marginal constituencies then perhaps they might have a voice. Yet the real beneficiaries of 'welfare dependency' have been those of the middle classes. 

Those of the middle class have been the ones who through concession after concession have built up equity in their homes, benefited from the enormous expansion in higher education for their kids. The flip side of the cycle of poverty is the cycle of wealth. Wealth produces greater health and well being, better housing, better education and attainment, better job prospects and more wealth and greater political influence. And meanwhile the poor get poorer. And inequalities in health and well-being grow ever larger. 

It is no coincidence that the Liberal Democrats cynically promised not to raise university tuition fees.  There were votes in it. The greatest beneficiaries of low and no fees have been the middle classes. Yet we are told the poor are 'trapped in welfare dependency'! No, they are trapped in poverty and inequality. It is the middle class who are trapped in dependency. 

But what of the poor? What we tend to do with the poor is blame them, or at best to blame their 'lifestyle'. It is as if the poor are poor because of their behaviour. Rather than address the real issue of poverty, inadequate income and opportunities, we address their behaviour and lifestyle as if by exalting them to behave differently they can miraculously break free from the cycle of poverty and poor health; it is all extraordinarily Victorian in approach. 

Yet public health policies have been so directed without the slightest evidence that they are effective. The truth is, as a study set up by NICE concluded in 2007,  "interventions designed to change behaviour rarely alleviate inequalities in health, and in some cases may exacerbate them." And in the process they may stigmatise the poor for 'bad' lifestyle and perpetuate a myth that it is 'lifestyle' rather than inequality that keeps them in poor health.

Inequality kills, but it is the poor who get the blame. As if they had the means to solve their poverty; if only they would do this or that and 'help themselves'; the poorest who had no hand in the financial mess created by the greed of the middle class and the bankers for whom there was no tomorrow taking their fat bonuses. Yet, the poorest are asked to carry the greatest burden of cuts. We mortgaged our tomorrow and now it is the poorest who will suffer the most. It is cruel and unfair. It is unjust. It is a disgrace. 


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