Thursday, October 21, 2010

Poverty of the past and poverty to come

To be honest with you many people like me will be relatively unaffected by the cuts announced in the CSR yesterday. However as the IFS has recently reported, George Osborne's spending cuts will hit the poorest harder than the better off. Over 100 years ago Seebohm Rowntree carried out some preliminary research into the amounts and types of foods, the levels of rents, cost of heating and lighting, etc. deemed necessary to maintain 'physical efficiency'. Rowntree’s estimates of the income needed to avoid poverty were set deliberately low in order to test whether there was any level of income at which people could not maintain a non-poor lifestyle no matter how hard they tried. In his report Rowntree distinguished between (a) ‘primary’
poverty – families whose income was insufficient for the maintenance even of ‘physical
efficiency’, and; (b) ‘secondary’ poverty – families whose income would have been
sufficient for the maintenance of 'physical efficiency' were it not that some portion of it was
absorbed by other expenditure.

When you read Rowntree’s report today, especially in light of the savage cuts that have just been announced, one is left contemplating exactly how we might today define what physical efficiency means. For Rowntree it meant the following:

'A family living upon the scale allowed for 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 half penny
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. They must never contribute anything to their church or chapel, or give any help to a neighbour which costs them money. They cannot save nor can they join a sick club or trade union, because they cannot pay the necessary subscriptions. The children must have no pocket money for dolls, marbles or sweets. The father must smoke no tobacco and drink no beer. The mother must never buy any pretty clothes for herself or her children, the character of the family wardrobe as for the family diet being governed by the regulation nothing must be bought but that which is absolutely necessary for the maintenance of physical health and what is bought must be of the plainest and most economical description'.

So how, exactly, will today's poor be affected by these savage, brutal and according to many commentators, unnecessary cuts? The coalition cabinet is drawn almost exclusively from the financial elite, people who simply have no concept of what 'physical efficiency' means for the millions of their fellow citizens who exist on modest incomes but who will bear the brunt of this ideologically driven spending round. Cameron’s Conservatives are made up of the “right kind of people” – his people: privately educated and from a background of immense wealth and privilege. Under Cameron, the Tories still believe the role of government is to concentrate wealth and power in the hands of those who embrace their own particular political, economic and social outlook. The CSR has given every indication that under the Cameron/Clegg coalition the gap between rich and poor is likely to rise even further. If Labour is to expose the ideological recklessness of these cuts then its best prospects lie not in outlining what it would have done instead - it is the opposition now and needs to get used to opposing - but in campaigning against what these cuts will do to further entrench the ugly realities of health, education and housing inequality.

Rowntree's 1901 report exposed the senseless, soul destroying and economically dire implications of a laissez faire, non-interventionist state - we owe it to today's poor to ensure that his sound advice and analysis are not dismissed in the name of inevitability.

1 comment:

Julian said...

I thought that Labour policy was that the cuts should be delayed until the economy had recovered, in order not to put the recovery at risk. If cuts are not necessary, where will the money come from to pay back the debt? I read today that the *interest* on the debt this year will be £43bn. How can we afford to pour £43bn and more down the drain each year?

You say Labour's "best prospects lie not in outlining what it would have done instead". It sounds as though Labour would have done pretty much the same as the coalition, although perhaps a little slower or later.