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James Bartholomew: Why do people talk more about ‘poverty’ now that there is so much less of it?


Edited extract from The Welfare State We’re In by James Bartholomew (Biteback 2014 £14.99)

Here is a puzzle. In the Middle Ages there was terrible poverty. Britain was afflicted by at least ninety-five famines. In 1235, some twenty thousand Londoners died of starvation and many resorted to eating tree bark for survival[i]. Yet in the most famous piece of literature from that time – the Canterbury Tales by Chaucer – the word ‘poverty’ can be found only twenty-six times.[ii]

A little later, during the time of the Tudor kings and queens, poverty was less common yet there were still famines. Peasants – the majority of the population – shared unheated hovels without toilets or baths. Yet in the entire works of Shakespeare, the word ‘poverty’ appears a mere twenty-four times.

Moving up to the nineteenth century, the condition of the poor had vastly improved. Clogs were routine at the beginning of the century and unusual by the end. The cost of food and clothing went down while average incomes went up. Yet curiously, Charles Dickens used the word ‘poverty’ vastly more than Chaucer and Shakespeare combined – a whopping 179 times.

In our own time, living standards have been transformed yet again. The cost of food has fallen through the 20th and early 21st centuries while incomes have multiplied. The percentage of incomes spent on food has fallen dramatically. Clothes, too, have become cheaper. More than 99 per cent of households have a television. The major nutritional problem for the less well-off in British society is now obesity.

Yet in the face of this, use of the word ‘poverty’ is vastly greater. In the House of Commons in 2002, the word was used in 1307 speeches[iii]. In many of those speeches it was used several times.

It seems back to front. As poverty has receded, the use of the word has soared.

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James Bartholomew
James Bartholomew
James Bartholomew is a journalist and author of The Welfare of Nations

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