Sometimes the most interesting news stories are hidden away in the odd recesses of newspapers, especially when they sit uneasily with conventional narratives
This story from today’s Guardian seems to me to fit into that category – it points out that poverty in Britain is on the increase among those in work as well as those out of it; partly because the recession has meant more part-time working, but also implying that even with Labour’s minimum wage it is becoming increasingly difficult for those in work to survive financially.
And I think there’s a much bigger story here – one to which I aim to return in future posts. There is a lot of rhetoric about economic growth and high living standards, and how progress has been made in recent years; but I believe there is considerable evidence to suggest that more than thirty years of free market economics has had precisely the opposite effect. Not only has the gap between rich and poor got larger, but most people, on middle as well as low incomes, have in real terms got poorer. The presence of a lot of shiny toys – TVs with larger, flatter screens, holidays in increasingly remote places – hides the fact that many of the essentials of life have become more difficult for an increasing proportion of people to obtain.
The most obvious one is housing. Quite how massive house price inflation can be seen as a symptom of wealth completely beats me. In precisely what way can a vast increase in the price of the most basic commodity of life – a roof over one’s head – be a sign of prosperity? How can the increasingly desperate struggle of many people to find decent housing possibly be something that should be regarded as a good thing?
Of course, those people who already own houses have seen their assets increase on paper, but the difficulties for those looking to buy a family home for the first time are obvious. It’s a huge form of redistribution from the young and poor to the old and rich, in other words towards the people for whom the media in general look to cater.
But there are other things too – what in the 1970s used to be described as the social wage. Pensions, for example – increasing numbers of people find their pension provision being gambled away by the city, or diminished by corporate pension holidays. Education – it’s not so long since higher education was free, and now Government is preparing to allow British universities to start charging fees of Ivy League proportions, without the generously-endowed scholarships of the American elite universities. The cost of travel for those who do not own a car has soared; for the privileged car owners (and it’s worth remembering that a third of the population has no access to a car), it has fallen.
I could go on, There are innumerable examples of ways in which for the average individual, life has become more expensive, more uncertain, less secure.
And to return to the Guardian article, there’s a message that Government is missing. We hear quite a lot from politicians about getting people into work as the way out of poverty. We’re going to hear quite a lot more, I’d guess, from our new Government about the workshy on benefits. But the research quoted in this piece shows that this rhetoric doesn’t survive scrutiny. At a stroke it rewrites market ideology, and demonstrates poverty is far more pervasive than politicians of all parties are prepared to admit. Low-paid jobs are the key to poverty, not unemployment. Outsourcing, privatisation, the decline of trade unionism, the pathologising of solidarity. That’s where the blame lies.
Where is the politician who is campaigning to change this?