I have just been reading some research by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) on UK poverty.
Poverty? In the UK? This from an article in the Church Times- here
What does it mean to be poor in the UK today? For many of us, the Victorian notion of poverty may still persist in our minds: ragged, barefoot chil dren, malnourished, overworked par ents, and slum housing. Yet in 21st-century Britain it is possible to be in poverty and own a mobile phone.
Poverty is a relative concept, explains Chris Goulden of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Where once it was measured on the basic principle of the “basket of goods”, the official poverty line is now set at 60 per cent of the national median income (currently £377 a week), i.e. £226.
For children who are classed as disadvantaged, it is as much about their participation in society as about their diet and clothes. While it may be possible to buy cheap tech nology such as mobile phones, these children may still not be able to af ford to go on the school trips, which can be relatively expensive, Mr Goulden says.
The number of people officially in poverty is increasing in the UK; and they are most likely to be children, pensioners, the disabled, or single-parent families. While New Labour made inroads into cutting poverty when it first came to office, this has now gone into reverse. According to the latest figures, after housing costs are taken into account, there are 13.2 million people in poverty today — about one in five of the population.
Of these, two to three million are thought to be in extreme poverty, living on just 40 per cent of the average income.
We live in a time when our obsession with ownership- of houses, of shiny electronic devices, of constructed and packaged experience- is at an all time high. This addiction to consumption has received some closer examination in the wake of recent economic upheavals, but the trend remains.
The IPRR research followed 58 low-income families in London, Newcastle, Nottingham and Glasgow aimed to understand what the expansion of household debt has meant for them. The research found that many low income families have become increasingly vulnerable and exposed because of debt, which has increased substantially in the last decade- from 93 to 161 per cent of disposable income over the last decade.
The study found that the main reason that families got into trouble was because of a reduction in income- the loss of a job to one of the working members, or the reduction of a benefit. The effects of this were often catastrophic.
Poverty, once some basic human needs are satisfied, is always relative.
Our sense of security, of personal value and of mental wellbeing is fuelled by lots of things, but in this world of shiny consumption, it is certainly influenced by our ability to make the same consumer choices that those around us are making.
It is very hard to resist the truth of this. Particularly for those whose finances are marginal. Choices that we make to stand aside from the consumer madness- to make decisions to live a simpler life- these may feel like middle class indulgences to many people when faced with kids who are fed a relentless stream of advertisements for gaming consoles, mobile telephones and expensive clothing.
This kind of poverty is no less brutalising.
Poverty is still the main predictor of lower life expectancy, poor educational outcomes, health problems, mental illness, family dysfunction, poor housing etc etc.
What is the answer?
I suspect that this relates to the need for much wider societal change- the need to find a different way of experiencing human society that breaks with the economic enslavement that our capitalistic system demands of us. To find meaning and relationships in other things.
Is this possible?
I think that it ought to be possible for the people of Jesus, if for any of us- despite our tendency to forget our call to be in this world, but not of it.
And I still hope that there will be enough of us prepared to live extraordinary lives, so that the huge loaf that is society will have a different leaven.
Or to put it a different way, we would learn to live up to the business of being salt to bring out the flavour in our communities, or light to illuminate the beautiful and small.
But- for me, there is the seduction of middle class security, and the accumulation of more stuff. It may yet be the end of us- and what a sad way to go…