It’s all about poverty, stupid!

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Some sobering news for education systems in Scotland, via the Joseph Rowntree Foundation;

  • The gap between children from low-income and high-income households starts early. By age 5, it is 10–13 months. Lower attainment in literacy and numeracy is linked to deprivation throughout primary school. By age 12–14 (S2), pupils from better-off areas are more than twice as likely as those from the most deprived areas to do well in numeracy. Attainment at 16 (the end of S4) has risen overall, but a significant and persistent gap remains between groups.
  • Parental socio-economic background has more influence than the school attended.
  • Children from deprived households leave school earlier. Low attainment is strongly linked to destinations after school, with long-term effects on job prospects.

We have been attempting to tout education as the means by which we make societies more equal for generations now. We tried a tri-partite education system, with children streamed by ability, then we switched to comprehensive education. We tried experimental community schools for a while (I went to one) then sort of gave up and said that the problem was caused by bad schools, bad teaching.

You could argue that the politicians employed the old divide and rule trick- they made schooling all about choice, individuality and parent power – none of these things bad in their own right, but they were sold to us using league tables (which masked the inequality by making inner city schools look like they were under performing.) The end result is that we as parents increasingly looked after our own. Those that could afford to send our kids to private education felt under even more pressure to do so.

What the Rowntree report makes clear is what we have always known- inequalities in educational attainment are not about bad schools or bad teaching, they are about one thing- poverty. It is not as if every piece of research in this areas has not told us this.

Equality is not something that can be promised to the next generation, no matter how much we hot house our kids through exams. Blair famously said that his three priorities in government were “Education, Education and Education.” The fool forgot that you can not treat a problem be focusing only on one of the symptoms.

The report mentioned above lists a whole set of things that it thinks government can do to narrow the attainment gap between rich and poor, but the reality is that the only guarantee of any kind of change is to bring greater equality of income into our society and lift poor people out of poverty.

social class

 

Economic lie no.6; inequality of wealth creates incentive and effort…

(The last posts in this series are here and here. Post no.4 dealt with similar territory. These posts are part of an on going attempt to search for alternatives to the economic status quo, which I would contend is costing the earth at the expense of the poor.)

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A recent book by French economist Thomas Piketty (Capital in the Twenty-First Century) has taken the issue of inequality on directly. So much so that the book has become something of a sensation amongst the movers and shakers of the economic world.

To recap- the world is becoming increasingly unequal. This from The Guardian;

Inequality of wealth in Europe and US is broadly twice the inequality of income – the top 10% have between 60% and 70% of all wealth but merely 25% to 35% of all income. But this concentration of wealth is already at pre-First World War levels, and heading back to those of the late 19th century, when the luck of who might expect to inherit what was the dominant element in economic and social life. There is an iterative interaction between wealth and income: ultimately, great wealth adds unearned rentier income to earned income, further ratcheting up the inequality process.

 

…the period between 1910 and 1950, when that inequality was reduced, was aberrant. It took war and depression to arrest the inequality dynamic, along with the need to introduce high taxes on high incomes, especially unearned incomes, to sustain social peace.

 

Now the ineluctable process of blind capital multiplying faster in fewer hands is under way again and on a global scale.

Take a moment to think about this- the rampant growth in the wealth of a tiny super rich elite has now taken us more or less back to the division of wealth that would have been familiar to an Edwardian farm worker or mill worker before the first world war. A world of vast country estates and stately homes serviced by an army of domestics. This is the world we are heading back to it seems.

How did this happen?

Consider the recent political reaction to the financial crisis- austerity hits public spending projects aimed at the poorest sections of society, whilst at the same time lowering inheritance taxes, refusing to reshape the council tax and boast promote ‘business-friendly’ low capital gains and corporation tax regimes.

They can get away with this for one simple reason- we have accepted a myth as truth- the myth of the wealth-creators, whose aspirations to accumulate are the engine of our national success. Set this in the context of the other myth- that national economies operate like household budgets, and the sense of looming crisis has meant that the current government has been able to slash and burn, whilst letting lose the greed of the few.

But back to Thomas Piketty. He has carefully analysed data from about 200 years of capitalist expansion, and came to this rather startling conclusion;

Capital, he argues, is blind. Once its returns – investing in anything from buy-to-let property to a new car factory – exceed the real growth of wages and output, as historically they always have done (excepting a few periods such as 1910 to 1950), then inevitably the stock of capital will rise disproportionately faster within the overall pattern of output. Wealth inequality rises exponentially.

 

The process is made worse by inheritance and, in the US and UK, by the rise of extravagantly paid “super managers”. High executive pay has nothing to do with real merit, writes Piketty – it is much lower, for example, in mainland Europe and Japan. Rather, it has become an Anglo-Saxon social norm permitted by the ideology of “meritocratic extremism”, in essence, self-serving greed to keep up with the other rich. This is an important element in Piketty’s thinking: rising inequality of wealth is not immutable.

 

Societies can indulge it or they can challenge it.

Piketty goes further however- he argues that this indulgent greed, this ‘meritocratic extremism’ will be the end of Capitalism itself. Those of us familiar with the Marxian view of the progression of history will remember this- how eventually those of us with little will get sick of a society that requires us to work to maintain the wealth of the few.

Anyone with the capacity to own in an era when the returns exceed those of wages and output will quickly become disproportionately and progressively richer. The incentive is to be a rentier rather than a risk-taker: witness the explosion of buy-to-let. Our companies and our rich don’t need to back frontier innovation or even invest to produce: they just need to harvest their returns and tax breaks, tax shelters and compound interest will do the rest.

Capitalist dynamism is undermined, but other forces join to wreck the system.

 

Piketty notes that the rich are effective at protecting their wealth from taxation and that progressively the proportion of the total tax burden shouldered by those on middle incomes has risen. In Britain, it may be true that the top 1% pays a third of all income tax, but income tax constitutes only 25% of all tax revenue: 45% comes from VAT, excise duties and national insurance paid by the mass of the population.

 

As a result, the burden of paying for public goods such as education, health and housing is increasingly shouldered by average taxpayers, who don’t have the wherewithal to sustain them. Wealth inequality thus becomes a recipe for slowing, innovation-averse, rentier economies, tougher working conditions and degraded public services.

 

Meanwhile, the rich get ever richer and more detached from the societies of which they are part: not by merit or hard work, but simply because they are lucky enough to be in command of capital receiving higher returns than wages over time. Our collective sense of justice is outraged.

 

The lesson of the past is that societies try to protect themselves: they close their borders or have revolutions – or end up going to war.

 

Piketty fears a repeat.

His solutions- a top income tax rate of up to 80%, effective inheritance tax, proper property taxes and, because the issue is global, a global wealth tax- are difficult to imagine at present. The elite are too comfortable in their neo-Georgian luxury.

But if Pinketty is right, the seeds of destruction are at the heart of capitalism- and it is the result of greed.

Jesus would have a few words to say about this too I think…

 

I am getting angrier…

chris goan

You are supposed to get more placid, easy going, calmer as you get older but I think I might be bucking the trend.

People have always described me as a calm, easy going person- particularly, it has to be said, those who do not know me well. Perhaps the reality was that for much of my younger years I was scared of my shadow and far too keen on showing a calm competent exterior to cover over the insecurities within. Simply put, I wanted to please people, not to draw attention.

But at the age of 46, I find myself in a place where life has done most of its becoming, some of its being and may even be looking into its declining. Life, for the most part, has been very kind to me. I am loved (despite it all) and I have learnt how to love in return. I have what I need plus a little bit that I do not. I live in a rich country that has known internal peace and stability for my whole life.

So what makes me angry? I can not pretend towards being totally absent from grumpy old man syndrome so this might well be a factor. However, the anger in me is pushed by a conviction that this world we live in has contained within it some terrible disappointments. Is this really as good as it gets? Is there not more than this, better than this?

Growing up I was told that God would sort everything out- probably soon (a second coming of Jesus) but certainly ultimately. The second coming has been delayed it seems and if we do live in the ‘end times’ then God is taking his own sweet time to get it all over with. And in the meantime there are all those peddling a kind of religion that sees itself as a great big hoover for the righteous and the rest can just go to hell. And it makes me angry.

I grew into a society that despite the looming possibility of nuclear war still thought that all of the world’s problems could be solved by technology. But then came global warming and we seem powerless to change our greedy needy addiction to consumption even though it is killing us. Technology seems to be a means of giving separation from the problems; they look different when viewed through a screen. And it makes me angry.

But what makes me angriest of all at the moment is that despite a thousand years of history, we in the UK seem to becoming ever more feudal. The rich barons gallop by in their Ferrari’s and sneer at the great unwashed. And to convince themselves of their rightful place of election they demonise, denegrate and stereotype. They make poor-porn like the unbelievable shite that is Benefits Street. And whilst the poor lose out in a thousand cuts, the rich get richer. They get more stuff. And it makes me ANGRY.

I heard a story today of someone who had been without benefits for three months. The person had been working previously, but mental health problems had made it increasingly difficult and they lost their job. A shattered self confidence was made worse after a ATOS assessment regarded the person as fit for work. The end result was that they stopped leaving the house. The machinery of unemployment benefit was impossible. It was hard enough to breathe. Hard enough to think. Every day becomes a competition between distraction and overwhelming dread. Death seems a valid option.

Add into this the current nastiness in the media, and in the mouths of government ministers, about scroungers, wasters, smokers, gamblers, and the self esteem of people already near rock bottom falls further. Anyone who has seen this kind of defeat close up, or experienced it for themselves, knows these words to be what they are- pure propaganda used to justify a social policy geared towards wealth creation for those who already have wealth.

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And it makes me incandescent.

Lest I give the impression that I am some kind of Jesus, turning over tables of injustice in the white heat of righteous indignation, I also get angry at computers that do not work, at my wife when she does not deserve it and my kids when they do.

Cowboys and Indians…

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There are parts of the UK that operate like some kind of holding tank for radioactive waste. Except that the waste is made up of people.

Some would call these people skyvers, wasters, people who live on the edge of criminality and addiction. They are the bastards of the welfare state; half lives created out of the fissive heat of market led capitalism.   They are gathered together where the housing is cheapest, closest together. Even when new, it is housing no one wants to live in.

And because it is irradiated, those who live in these places become defined by it, cursed by it, captured within it.

What to do?

This has been the subject of study in sociology for decades- ever since the slums were replaced by high rise flats, which in turn were torn down and replaced by housing association faux-villages with their ragged green bits and broken picket fences.

The problem is not welfare even though there are problems with welfare.

The problem is not worklessness even though work is next to impossible to find if you are irradiated.

The problem is lack of hope.

The problem is caused by abandonment, by casting outside, by removing worth, by categorising as ‘other’, ‘less than’. By the death of dreams.

Today the Chancellor announced cuts of £25 Billion to welfare budgets and I want to scream out loud with anger at it all.

But who knows what to do with the radioactive waste? It is too expensive to clean.

I turn to writing as this is the only way I know how to scream. Here is another one of the poems that I am calling ‘protest poems’.

cowboy

 

Cowboys and Indians

 

The wagons circled in that wild place

Under the kitchen table

Brambled by spiders’ webs

Stalked by wrinkled peas

 

He always wanted to be a pioneer

To ride the range, and

Eat beans beneath the wandering star

But no-one ever leaves this place

 

His cowboy became Red Indian

His range a reservation

In the streets below roam no buffalo

The distant drums

Lie silent

 

 

Poverty UK, revisited…

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image from The Guardian

There have been a series of stories in the press over the past few months, setting an agenda that goes something like this;

Austerity is necessary, we all need to pull in our belts for the sake of the nation

Poverty is avoidable if you work hard. Only those who are lazy live in poverty

We can not afford to continue to pay benefits to scroungers

It is the working ‘squeezed middle’ we need to feel sorry for- those people whose taxes are being used to buy easy lifestyles to people on benefits

This blame the poor attitude is pervasive and seems to play remarkably well- giving us someone to blame, easy scapegoats for the economic woes that assail the nation. Never mind the facts.

We already know that the rich are getting richer.

And that a third of the workforce have held on to their jobs through accepting pay cuts, in a manner unprecedented.

Today, we hear that an extra one million people are now regarded as living in poverty in the UK, including 300,000 children- this from the governments own stats.

One strange stat however is that most of these new children who live in poverty come from working households. All those benefits cuts to council tax benefit, housing benefit, etc, squeezed wages. This from the Guardian says it all;

Oxfam’s Katherine Trebeck said: “It is unacceptable that in the seventh richest country on the planet, we’ve seen the number of people living in poverty increase by nearly a million. With cuts to public services and social security in the pipeline, the number of people living on absolute low incomes will only increase over the years.”

Alison Garnham, chief executive of Child Poverty Action Group, said: “Despite all the talk about ‘scroungers’ and generations of families never working, today’s poverty figures expose comprehensively the myth that the main cause of poverty is people choosing not to work. The truth is that for a growing number of families, work isn’t working. The promise that work would be a route out of poverty has not been kept as wages stagnate and spending cuts have hurt low-income working families.”

Barnardo’s chief executive Anne Marie Carrie said: “This year many of these households will be pushed into financial chaos when the cap on benefits increases take effect, compromising the health and life chances of children as they are forced to grow up in poverty.”

Matthew Reed, chief executive of the Children’s Society, said: “It is shameful that, as one of the richest countries in the world, child poverty is being allowed to increase.”

All these charities are working at the cutting edge of poverty in the UK. The so called ‘squeezed middle’- those of us who might  be forced to alter one or two consumer decisions as a result of cut backs- we rarely come into contact with this kind of poverty.

Angry? We should be.

Decisions taken by our present government are not victimless.

 

Welfare state…

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Welfare State

 

The sofa split some years ago

The gas fire hisses as if

through broken teeth.

Colin tries to stir up hope

On the Baby Belling whilst the TV screen sucks

the kids in like flecks of dust.

 

A manufactured crisis for some pop star wannabe

Stabs out from the fat old tube.

The crowd scream – no wonder.

And Colin stares into the tangled noodles wondering

What might become of the children

For not one of them can sing.

 

But their faces, lit by cathode light

Are beautiful.

 

 

 

The voice of the Church…

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Over the last few days, a rare thing has been happening- leading voices in the Church have started to speak out, and the media has been taking an interest. More remarkably, the issues that they have spoken on are not the usual internal contortions around homosexuality and the role of women in Church hierarchy; instead the Church is engaging in a debate about things that really matter.

First the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, challenged the British Government over planned welfare reforms, saying that the poorest children in the country were most at risk.

Next the new Pope started to challenge the culture of elitism in the Catholic church, and refocus his mission on the poor- first washing the feet of female inmates at a detention centre (including a Moslem woman) then calling for “peace in the whole world, still divided by greed looking for easy gain, wounded by the selfishness which threatens human life and the family, selfishness that continues in human trafficking, the most extensive form of slavery in this 21st century. Peace to the whole world, torn apart by violence linked to drug trafficking and by the iniquitous exploitation of natural resources”.

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Now, step forward the Evangelicals and non-conformists…

On the eve of the most sweeping and devastating raft of welfare cuts and reforms since the beginning of the Welfare State in the UK, a coalition of churches, including Methodists, United Reformed, Baptist and Church of Scotland raised their voices;

Paul Morrison, public issues policy adviser at the Methodist Church, said the churches were concerned that the benefit cuts were “a symptom of an understanding of people in poverty in the United Kingdom that is just wrong”. Speaking to the BBC, Morrison said: “It is an understanding of people that they somehow deserve their poverty, that they are somehow ‘lesser’, that they are not valued. The churches believe that they are valued and we believe that they should be treated much more fairly than they are being.”

Morrison and other church figures were promoting a report published recently by the four churches accusing politicians and the media of promoting six myths about the poor: that they are lazy; are addicted to drink or drugs; are not really poor; cheat the system; have an easy life; and that they caused the deficit.

“The systematic misrepresentation of the poorest in society is a matter of injustice which all Christians have a responsibility to challenge,” the report says.

Morrison said: “We saw that people who we value, who we believe God values and God loves, we saw them being insulted day in and day out in the media, and that needed to stop. The consequence of the attitudes towards the poor is that welfare cuts like this become more acceptable, so it’s right that we criticise that too.”

Well said.

The church- on the side of the Angels- who knew?

The Government here seem rattled. Grant Shapps, Chairman of the Conservatives has been pushing back- suggesting that there is a moral case for rewarding those in work. Good old Victorian values those- make the workhouses so bad that it is better to shove our kids up chimneys.

Let us remember that at the same time as all these cuts, the government has reduced the top rate of income tax paid over a certain level of income by the very highest earners) from 50% down to 45%.

It all fits the rhetoric- reward the strivers, punish the skivers. Justify this by vilifying those who receive benefits. It matters not that the rhetoric does not fit reality, or what casualties line the roadside.

And those of us who are comfortable, well provided for- we are being told that we dangle over a precipice, and that all this is necessary.  It is not.

The Church should be at the loving heart of this matter- our conscience- a mirror to hold up before those in power. Whilst I feel a shame at what our government is doing, I find hope in the voices coming from Christians.

Poverty in the UK 2013…

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The strivers/skivers language used by our present government is a shameful smokescreen over what is happening to whole sections of our society.

I make no apologies for this assertion- I have seen it with my eyes, and now there is this;

Senior welfare experts have urged the government to reconsider benefit cuts coming into force next week that will disproportionately hit the poorest families and push a further 200,000 children into poverty.

In an open letter to David Cameron, published in the Guardian, more than 50 social policy professors warn that the welfare reforms, coupled with previous tax, benefit and public expenditure cuts, will result in the poorest tenth of households losing the equivalent of around 38% of their income.

They say the changes will undermine public support for the welfare state – which they call “one of the hallmarks of a civilised society”.

“Welfare states depend on a fair collection and redistribution of resources, which in turn rests upon the maintenance of trust between different sections of society and across generations.

“Misleading rhetoric concerning those who have to seek support from the welfare state, such as the contrast between ‘strivers’ and ‘shirkers’, risks undermining that trust and, with it, one of the key foundations of modern Britain.”

The letter argues that such rhetoric does not reflect the reality of a UK where families move fluidly in and out of work and in and out of poverty.

It adds: “In the interests of fairness and to protect the poorest, as well as to avoid the risk of undermining the consensus on the British welfare state, we urge you to increase taxation progressively on the better off, those who can afford to pay (including ourselves), rather than cutting benefits for the poorest.”

As I read this, I can hear ringing in my head the voices of people who regard poverty in this country as almost entirely the fault of the poor- their poor planning, fecklessness, gambling, smoking, drinkings, laziness, refusal to get out there and find a job. I hear them tell me how benefits are the problem- removing the imperative for change and industry in those who then become a sponge on the productivity of society. ‘Nobody needs to be poor in this country’ I hear them say. ‘Nobody can be regarded as poor if they wear designer trainers and sit on their arses playing X-box all day.’

People who say these things, even those who grew up in poor households, they have rarely had any contact with those living in poverty- whose confidence and hope have been undermined by the brutalising effect of living as a non-citizen in post modern classless Britain.

I too grew up in a poor family- the child of a single mother who often did not eat so we could go to piano lessons, or have a new pair of shoes. I remember still the shame of this life- the feeling that I was less than my peers, and that no matter what I did to try to hide this, it was as if I wore a big badge saying ‘poor’. This was nothing to do with choices that I, or even my mother had made. There was nothing romantic about this experience, nothing that might be regarded as character building. What I became has always been built on these very shaky foundations.

I was reminded again of this when reading this;

A separate report compiled by academics from six UK universities concludes that Britain’s poorest are worse off today than they were at the height of the cuts imposed by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in 1983.

The Poverty and Exclusion project reports that 33% of British households lacked at least three basic living necessities in 2012, compared with 14% in 1983. These include living in adequately heated homes, eating healthily, and owning basic clothing items such as properly fitting shoes.

“Despite the fact that the UK is a much wealthier country, levels of deprivation are going back to the levels found 30 years ago,” says the report, titled The Impoverishment of The UK.

Some of the findings are featured in an ITV Tonight programme titled Breadline Britain on Thursday evening.

The report found:

• Around 4 million adults and almost 1 million children lack at least one basic item of clothing, such as a warm winter coat, while 3 million adults of working age (including over a fifth of those looking for work) cannot afford appropriate clothes for a job interview.

• Roughly 4 million children and adults are not fed properly judged against what most people consider to be a minimally acceptable diet – meaning they do not eat three meals a day, including fresh fruit, meat, fish and vegetables. Over a quarter of all adults skimped on meals so others in their households could eat.

• One-third of all adults can’t afford to pay unexpected costs of £500 (such as if a cooker breaks down), 31% can’t afford to save at least £20 a month, and 1 million children can’t afford to join sports training or drama clubs.

• About 11 million people cannot afford adequate housing conditions and nearly one in ten households are unable to afford to fully heat their home.

The project measures who and how many people fall below what the majority agree are “necessities for life” in the UK today. The list of necessities also includes consumer items such as a washing machine and a telephone, and social activities like visiting friends and family in hospital.

“The results present a remarkably bleak portrait of life in the UK today and the shrinking opportunities faced by the bottom third of UK society,” said the head of the project, Professor David Gordon of Bristol University. “Moreover this bleak situation will get worse as benefit levels fall in real terms, real wages continue to decline and living standards are further squeezed.”

What gets me most about our present government and the politics they espouse is the grubby defensive self serving flavour of it all. Our ambitions for society have become, at best, to carve for ourselves some individual security, and let those who lack our ambition go hang.

How do you find ambition if you feel nothing but defeat? If the zeitgeist all around you is redolent with hopelessness?

My mate Graham posted this quote the other day;

I stored this from a wonderous mailing called ‘Friday night theology’ back in October and is written by someone called Roger Sutton. Most of this could as easily be read by a person with faith or no faith. I love the way that it points us to the other and is not the usual motivational self, self guff. Great for Holy Week:

‘When you believe life is limited, with only so many resources to go round then you naturally hold on to what you have, you grasp and hoard and defend. It’s an ugly place to live, with fear and anxiety at its heart. But if you believe life is unlimited, abundant and providential then you can respond with a grateful heart for the bread we receive each day knowing there will be more bread just around the corner. We can give and bless others and take care of those who are the most vulnerable, knowing that true compassion knows no limit, it has no fatigue element. Stewardship then replaces control, where we take responsibility to make sure the resources are allocated in fair and just ways, but always knowing that we bring our small offering of loaves and fish. It’s simply what we have, and the force of abundance adds to those humble gifts and multiplies them.

We need to challenge our propensity towards anxiety, believing that life is out to get us. We need to trust again in the God of harvest time, the providing abundant force in the universe. The future, as Daniel O’Leary in Passion for the Possible tells us: “is a mother waiting for us with outstretched arms, and a father who is crazy about our  freedom and our fulfillment and longs only for us to let him love us”

Where my friends is this kind of politics, this kind of economics, this kind of social policy?

This kind of religion?

Trickle down economics; economic lie number one…

The first of a little mini series about Capitalism that has been nagging at me for a while…

trickle down economics

There was an article in out local paper last week- Argyll and Bute council, like most of our councils, has to make significant cuts to the budget. Despite our large geographical area, Argyll has a low density of population and services are already stretched tight. The article listed the sordid detail of the cuts- older peoples care, youth rehab, road schemes, outsourcing services to the private sector who will do the support of our most vulnerable more cheaply etc etc.

And what is all this about? Why is money suddenly so tight? Why do we all buy into the collective idea that ‘times are hard’ and so ‘we all have to tighten our belts?’

The fact is that not all of us do tighten our belts. Many people are doing very well out of the crisis. This from the Guardian;

The super-rich – the top 1% of earners – now pocket 10p in every pound of income paid in Britain, while the poorest half of the population take home only 18p of every pound between them, according to a report published this week by the Resolution Foundation thinktank, which reveals the widening gap between those at the very top and the rest of society.

Inequality has grown sharply over the past 15 years, according to Resolution’s analysis: the top 1% of earners have seen their slice of the pie increase from 7% in the mid-1990s to 10% today, while the bottom half have seen their share drop from 19% to 18%.

And then there are those right at the bottom- the Strivers who are forced to become Scyvers, or the Skyvers who have lost hope, or those who never had a fair crack of the whip in the first place. Have you noticed that when the economy takes a dip, they always take a hit? They become the problem- the scapegoats.

So we see all these regressive punative policy decisions being pursued by our current government- lower benefits to fewer people, changes to housing benefit to force people to leave their homes if they have an extra bedroom. All this in the context of reductions in care provision, and less funding for voluntary bodies and charities. Our current government is doing things that even Thatcher at her most strident would have baulked at.

But again- why? Where does all this come from?

What the neo-liberal economists will tell us is that the problem is caused by natural adjustments made by a self regulating economic system. That the job of us all is to get out of the way and let it all sort itself out like some kind of higher intelligent life form. The problem, they would say, is an over inflated public sector, whose interference in the natural order of things by public spending, taxation and welfare provision means that the economy fails to self regulate.

This kind of economic thinking has become so pervasive, so wrapped up in the political system, so much in service of powerful self interests, that we all wriggle on its hook. We are compliant because we have bought in to some of the lies that the system has sold to us- perhaps the biggest one is this one- Trickle down theory.

In a nu­tshell, trickle-down theory is based on the premise that within an economy, giving tax cutsto the top earners makes them more likely to earn more. Top earners invest that extra money in productive economic activities or spend more of their time at the high-paying trade they do best (whether that be creating inventions or performing heart surgeries). Either way, these activities will be productive, reinvigorate economic growth and, in the end, generate more tax revenue from these earners and the people they’ve helped. According to the theory, this boost in growth will ultimately help those in lower income brackets as well.

So, the argument is, if we have lots of rich people, and they are encouraged to become super rich, then our country, and our economy, will benefit- right down to the roots.

This analysis does not regard the wealth of the few as contingent upon the poverty of many- in this country and even more crucially in the poor countries around the world whose raw materials and cheap labour we are entirely dependent upon.

It also does not conform with the facts, as the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer.

As the worlds resources are over consumed by the few and our environment continues to be damaged, perhaps beyond repair.

As austerity plans are still touted as ‘good housekeeping’, as if the UK economy could be compared to a household budget.

So, what is the alternative? Fairer, more progressive tax systems? This might be a start- but I think the problem is the system- and we are all part of the system aren’t we? It is really hard to get out of it- the mortgages, the gadgets, the foreign holidays and the dependency on technology to deliver distraction, entertainment and connection.

Where is the Kingdom of God in all of this? What are we, the agents of this Kingdom , to put our energy towards? I am convinced that we need to be engaged critics of injustice wherever we see it- particularly towards the poor and the marginalised.

And the beginning of how we can do this is to take a look at the system through a different set of lenses…

‘Problem families’…

So, the government has revealed it’s plan to deal with all those anti-social, work shy, boozing and school absconding families that are the scourge of our towns and cities. Hear what a rather belligerent Eric Pickles had to say about it all on the Today programme here.

It is the latest in a long line of government attempts to intervene in the lives of those who have fallen through the holes in our society. We used to talk about social class of course, but this has been out of fashion for some time. The last Labour Government used the language of ‘social exclusion‘, and poured resources into education and measures to deal with child poverty. There is some evidence of success, in that by the end of their term of office, 900,000 children appeared to have been lifted out of poverty- see this article in the Guardian for some discussion about this.

Since then, austerity has opened the door to widespread reductions in benefit, an undermining of family support services, and now, the measures to help ‘problem families’.  Note the subtle change in emphasis. No longer is poverty, crime and family dysfunction a matter of economics or a measure of the failure of society- rather it relates to the failure of individuals. We are using the language of blame.

But what can be done, particularly in these times of austerity, to change the lives of those people in our society who are most vulnerable? Might Pickles’ policy of identifying these ‘problem families’, then bringing to bear a wide range of support along with some targeted spending actually help? Is he not just applying good common sense?

By the tone of some of Pickles’ comments over the past few days, it is clear that he has little interest in learning from those of us who have been trying to work in support of the poorest and most broken in our society. They are fluent in social work he said. The Daily Mail loved it;

‘Sometimes we have run away from categorising, stigmatising, laying blame,’ he said. The Government is spending £450million to try to lessen the problems these families cause, which are calculated to cost taxpayers £9billion a year.

The problem of course, is that in the UK (as in the USA) poverty is politics. And politics loves to simplify and make one dimensional protestations. Often there are scapegoats.

Again, what can be done about these ‘problem families’?

It seems we have two broad approaches, which I will characterise as ‘Pickles’ and ‘Politically correct’ (or ‘PC’.)

Pickles

Poverty is a matter of morality. It is about poor choices made by people who are a drain on everything that is good about our society.

There may be some who are the deserving poor- Tiny Tim on his crutches, the elderly yokel who has run out of turnips. For these people, the parish has its Poor House.

However, there are also those who have found a way to sponge of the system. What is worse, there is a whole industry of people whose job appears to be about supporting them in this.

These people are a threat to middle England- to those of us who do work hard, cut our front lawns and live prudently within our means. They are the source of disease, crime and noise pollution.

What is needed is a good sharp shock, delivered in a targeted way.

All this liberal research about the causes of poverty is left wing twaddle dressed up as ‘science’.

PC

Poverty is about economics. People are shaped by the place in society they are born into- their opportunities and life chances are largely given to them, not matters of choice.

There are huge vested interests in society that keep things this way.

Poverty brutalises. If you live in a survival economy, and have few opportunities for escape, then small wonder that you will be more likely to find release through drugs or alcohol. Why are we surprised too that some turn to crime?

The human spirit is unquenchable – after all, many still escape the poverty trap – but many others need nurture. They need hope, not condemnation. To blame poor people for poverty is like blaming Jews for the  Holocaust.

People do not chose to be poor. Neither (with a few exceptions) do they chose to live on benefits. They do this because they do not have hopes for a real alternative. This is a failure of society, and one that any good society should try to change, no matter how difficult this might be.

The most effective means of changing the lives of the poor is to raise their income.

In the absence of this, a whole range of community based activities are required, guided by careful research, learning from previous interventions so as to avoid the many mistakes of previous attempts at social engineering.

Regular readers of this blog will already suspect which of the two camps I belong to.

But they might also be surprised to hear me say that I believe that both have merit. There is a moral dimension to all of life that we ignore at our peril. Remember Durkheim and his Anomie? We all have personal responsibility for the choices we make, even if for many of us, these choices are limited by our experience.

There is that old parable that Jesus used in Matthew 25- another one of those passages where Jesus was trying to explain something about the Kingdom of God;

14 “Again, it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted his wealth to them. 15 To one he gave five bags of gold, to another two bags, and to another one bag,[a] each according to his ability. Then he went on his journey. 16 The man who had received five bags of gold went at once and put his money to work and gained five bags more. 17 So also, the one with two bags of gold gained two more. 18 But the man who had received one bag went off, dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.

19 “After a long time the master of those servants returned and settled accounts with them. 20 The man who had received five bags of gold brought the other five. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with five bags of gold. See, I have gained five more.’

21 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

22 “The man with two bags of gold also came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘you entrusted me with two bags of gold; see, I have gained two more.’

23 “His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’

24 “Then the man who had received one bag of gold came. ‘Master,’ he said, ‘I knew that you are a hard man, harvesting where you have not sown and gathering where you have not scattered seed.25 So I was afraid and went out and hid your gold in the ground. See, here is what belongs to you.’

26 “His master replied, ‘You wicked, lazy servant! So you knew that I harvest where I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed? 27 Well then, you should have put my money on deposit with the bankers, so that when I returned I would have received it back with interest.

28 “‘So take the bag of gold from him and give it to the one who has ten bags. 29 For whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 30 And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

This parable always seemed so unfair and cruel to me- un-Jesus-like. I have heard it used as a capitalist manifesto, but I do not think it has anything to do with money- I think it is something to do with wasted lives though. We have a call to live abundantly- not in terms of how much we gain and consume, but rather in terms of how we love and create.

However, there is more. Jesus had much to say about our duty towards the poor. He was never into the blame game. He seemed to prefer the company of those who had little. He seemed to invite his followers to do the same;

Luke 14:12-14 He said also to the one who had invited him, “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

These are not easy issues. They can not be dealt with by one dimensional politics, or well meaning liberal intentions.

Ultimately, the success or failure of Pickles’ latest pet project will not be at his cost- it will be felt by those most vulnerable people in our society.