Poverty, fast food and ignorance, 2015…

Reversing poverty requires a more progressive tax system and a shift in the political mindset

I heard an article on the radio the other day about fast food workers and their terms and conditions of employment that rather shocked me. It is no secret I suppose that those working in the catering industry are amongst the lowest paid and enjoy the poorest job security. The ultra-efficient food production system that gives us those addictive hits of over-salted fats and complex carbohydrates is in some ways most impressive. When it was being refined in the USA they were keen to extract every dollar out each gaudy outlets and so the human components become carefully managed production units, managed according to the footfall on an hour-by-hour basis.

What I did not know is that around 80% of those working in the fast food chains that we are all so familiar with are on one of those notorious ‘zero hour’ contracts, which basically means that they work only when required and their employer sends them home when demand slackens in order to save money. Many also have to sign an exclusivity clause in their contract that forbids them working a second job, so ensuring their continued availability, even when not actually being given paid employment. It will be no surprise to hear that this workforce has a very low level of unionisation.

One man told a story of how he always finds himself running out of money towards the end of his two week pay cycle, running out of food a couple of days before pay day, and then waiting at the cash machine at midnight as the money cleared in his account in order to be able to eat.

He described how difficult it was to keep working in the fast food industry when he was so hungry.

Someone employed to make the food that is almost the definition of excess (rather than need) is going hungry. Is this the society we are making; one in which a wealthy international elite can manipulate markets to the maximisation of their own profit margins whilst those at the bottom end of the ladder literally go hungry?

I think it is even worse than this however- somehow we have allowed ourselves to become convinced that this is a good thing; that hunger leads to aspiration and in turn to greater effort; that a good society is based primarily on the protection of wealth creation for the few so that the many can aspire to greater riches themselves. Alongside this is the ‘austerity’ narrative- the idea that the poor and old and weak are an unaffordable burden on a society that has been spending beyond its means and that this in turn rewards indolence and fosters worklessness and idleness.

What is almost entirely missing from the debate around these issues is any sense of objective analysis of the causes and effects of this poverty and growing inequality on our society. It is not as though this research does not exist- accumulated over 60 years by post war social scientists. The evidence base that could and should be driving our policies appear to be irrelevant to those in power whose reference points and inspiration appear to come from right wing think-tanks driven by a neo-liberal agenda, starting with ideas of libertarianism and concentrating on shrinking the state to allow full rein to the free market.

This is not evidence based policy, carefully thought through according to what we think might be the least worst option. It is driven instead by ideology and the primacy of the profit incentive. There needed to be a story told to justify the bitter realities of this ideology, and we have accepted it almost without question.

But there is much that would challenge this narrative should we care to look for it. I grew up in a single parent family, entirely dependent on the welfare state. Back in the early 80’s Britain was in the grip of another recession, one which saw over 3 million people unemployed as Thatcher rolled back all those state owned and supported industries. It is perhaps sobering to note that since 1983, the UK economy has doubled in size but the proportion of household falling below what might be regarded as minimum standards of living has also doubled.

Other research would suggest that 2 million more children live in deprived households than in 1999 and food poverty (measured in terms of numbers of meals per day and things like meat/fresh fruit and veg) improved in the last decade but has considerably worsened over the last 10 years. These issues are simply not on the national agenda however. Rather we have individualised everything as if the only cause of poverty is the individual action (or inaction) of the poor themselves.

As a social sciences graduate and someone who has worked in and amongst the poorest of our society for my whole career, I asked myself what I knew that set me at odds with the current direction our society is taking, and came up with this list;

  1. Inequality leads to unhappiness
  2. Poverty brutalises
  3. Poverty has to be measured relative to neighbours
  4. Poverty makes people ill
  5. Poverty is self-sustaining
  6. Poverty is mostly heritable
  7. Poverty is a Political choice
  8. Poverty is a theological issue

I wanted to think more about these things, to weigh again the research evidence and to raise my own small voice to push against those in power whose self-serving narrative is so apparently seductive to those of us with a degree of comfort, particularly when the mix is laced with an unhealthy dose of fear and prejudice.

So my plan is to revisit some of these issues here over the next few weeks and months…

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