As the season of goodwill fast approaches, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) has published its annual report on the plight of the less fortunate among us, entitled Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion 2016. It found that in 2014/15 “there were 13.5 million people in poverty in the UK, 21 per cent of the population”, a percentage almost identical to that which they reported ten years earlier. That one-in-five of our population reside in “poverty” is an arresting statistic. The JRF define poverty as having an income below 60 per cent of the median, once housing costs have been deducted. As such, the JRF are not measuring poverty, but inequality. Using this definition it would be possible, theoretically, to increase the personal income of every single person in Britain, while at the same time raising poverty levels. It would all depend upon in the pattern of distribution.
What causes ‘inequality’? Most obviously, the circumstances of one’s birth. But also the manner in which we throw ourselves at life. The ways in which each and every one of us attempts (in some form) to get ahead: training to secure a better job; trying to get our kids into a good school; playing the lottery; starting a business; smuggling cigarettes; demanding a pay rise. All of these endeavours are attempts to create inequalities – we want more for ourselves. If we succeed in our efforts, then those in our communities unlike us will come to experience inequality, relative to ourselves.
According to 2014 OECD figures, 10.4 per cent of the UK population had an income of fifty per cent or less of the national median. This put the UK at eighteenth out of thirty-six developed countries, in terms of having the lowest ‘poverty’ levels. Further to this, the UK was less than two per cent ‘worse’ than another twelve of the nations (using the ‘Relative Income Poverty’ marker), leaving only six nations with markedly less inequality than ourselves. Way out in front was Iceland, with its tiny population and impressive natural resources (big piles of fish). But even in the land of ice and fire the Left frets about inequality, with the Icelandic Confederation of Labour commenting that “we [Iceland] haven’t done a good job in distributing well-being to everyone”. For when poverty is a relative concept, it is without end. There will always be more poor people.
It is interesting to consider how our measurement of poverty has changed over time. A hundred and ten years ago, Seebohm Rowntree, the son of the JRF’s founder, Joseph Rowntree, published a report entitled Poverty: A Study of Town Life, which found that 27.8 per cent of the population of York was in poverty, a figure not dissimilar to today’s twenty one per cent. However, when we consider Rowntree’s soul-destroying definition of what constituted poverty, the differences between then and now seem stark:
A family living upon the scale allowed for in this estimate must never spend a penny on railway fare or omnibus. They must never go into the country unless they walk. They must never purchase a halfpenny newspaper or spend a penny to buy a ticket for a popular concert. They must write no letters to absent children, for they cannot afford to pay the postage … The children must have no pocket money for dolls, marbles or sweets… [The list goes on (cited here)].
That is not to discount modern day poverty. Poverty, as disadvantage (a relative concept), exists. I’ve been on welfare myself (more than once), my lowest point being when I had to beg the DSS (as it was) for a crisis loan to get me through the week. Like many welfare recipients, I was neither entirely responsible for my situation, nor was I blameless. I did not come from the type of social background that was ever going to open any doors for me, career-wise (though I did go to a good state school). But neither did I try pushing on any of those doors. I was on the spectrum between fecklessness and lack-of-advantage (tending strongly towards the feckless).
Given that such human traits exist, how do we rid society of inequality? We can’t. We would have to prevent individuals from exhibiting characteristics such as ‘driving ambition’ and ‘lack of direction’, for they both give rise, inevitably, to inequality. Success and failure would have to be abolished. Even if we managed to dismantle privilege, the human impulses described above would soon lead to the emergence of new (or possibly the same) hierarchies. We would have to outlaw the making of ‘stupid life decisions’, and attempts to ‘get ahead’ and ‘feather one’s nest’. All of that impure, inequality-inducing human stuff would have to cease.
Equality, in and of itself, is without value, neither good nor bad. Worms are all equal. Lucky them. That is not to dismiss those who campaign for equality. Economic equality, of that elusive type that involves mass enrichment, rather than mass impoverishment, would be a perfection of sorts. To yearn for it is a form of righteousness. But, as St Augustine wrote, “the perfect state of righteousness … belongs not to this life”. To dream of government interventions (i.e. taxes) that increase equality, and which directly fuel national economic success, is to dwell on things not of this world.
This Christmas, let us pray that sufficient numbers of us continue to exhibit all of those imperfect, inequality-inducing traits which drive the economy and create opportunity, and thus allow those of us who would not be poor to not be poor.
(Image: Chris Sampson)