This essay, on poverty and social policy, was my Observer column this week. It was published 23 January 2022, under the headline “Poor people face a perfect storm. Let no one tell you it’s their own fault”.
Terry Pratchett understood why most social policies fail. In his book Men At Arms, one of the characters, Samuel Vines, put forward his “‘boots’ theory of socio-economic unfairness”. “The reason that the rich were so rich,” Vines observed, “was because they managed to spend less money.” A really good pair of leather boots might be serviceable for years but cost more than Vines earned in a month. The boots he could afford would last but a year or two and continually need replacing. So, a rich man had “a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time”, while “a poor man who could only afford cheap boots” would have spent twice as much money and “still have wet feet”.
There are likely to be many wet feet in the coming months, because few policy-makers see the world through Pratchett’s eyes. Instead, much social policy is rooted in the idea that the rich can afford good boots because of their hard work, while if the poor have wet feet, it’s the result of their own indolence.
The thick smoke being generated by BYOB work events, prime ministerial mendacity and the alleged blackmail of recalcitrant MPs is helping to obscure a social calamity that is fast approaching: rising inflation, soaring energy prices, stagnating real wages and slashed benefits – all whipping up a perfect storm that will engulf the poor.
Inflation is not just at its highest point since the early 1990s but is particularly damaging for the most deprived. Food writer Jack Monroe argues that official inflation figures grossly underestimate the real cost of living for those with the fewest resources. Data suggests she is right – the cost of basic foods had risen far more than the 5.4% headline inflation figure and, in many cases, the cheapest alternatives have increased most of all.
All of us will be stung in the coming months by soaring gas prices. The poor, though, will again be hardest hit. In 2002, according to research by Citizens Advice, claimants spent 14% of their unemployment benefit on energy costs. Last year, it was 18%. And this April it is likely to be an extraordinary 33%.
Inflation has hit wages, too. There has been much talk in recent months about labour shortages and much hope that such shortages will push up salaries. In nominal terms, wages have indeed risen. The latest Office for National Statistics data shows, however, that in real terms, taking inflation into account, pay is stagnating at best and may even be falling.
A report last year from the Institute for Public Policy Research showed the continual rise throughout this century in the numbers of working people who fall below the poverty line. Before the pandemic, one in six working households was classed as poor. Even families in which both parents work are increasingly being pulled into poverty. “High levels of working poverty”, the report observed, “mean that many of those who are unemployed will simply swap ‘out-of-work’ poverty for ‘in-work’ poverty once they do, hopefully, find work.”
Benefits, too, have tumbled over the past decade, with £14bn, according to the New Economics Foundation, taken out of the welfare budget since 2010. Without the cuts, the NEF estimates, there would have been 1.5m fewer people in poverty. Again, those most hit by the cuts have been families on lower incomes.
Put these developments together and we are facing a potentially devastating crisis, but one that may not register because it will mostly affect those with least social visibility. The problem is not simply the constellation of developments helping create such a crisis. It is also the way we think about poverty and poor people. When the government was preparing to cut the £20 Universal Credit uplift, Tory MP Bim Afolami insisted it was necessary because “the best way of getting people out of poverty is into work”, ignoring the fact that 40% of those on Universal Credit – more than two million people – are actually in work.
When the Tories imposed a benefit cap on parents with more than two children, Iain Duncan Smith claimed it would “teach parents that children cost money”, as if the poor, far more than those who have never had to scrimp and scrape to provide their children with clothes, toys and even the next meal, are not already all too painfully aware of that. The consequence of Duncan Smith’s “lesson” was to create more destitution. A new report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows that poverty in families with more than two children has risen sharply since the introduction of the cap. Almost half now live below the poverty line, a figure not seen since the early 1990s.
There is a long history of blaming the poor for their misfortunes, from the Victorian notion of the “undeserving poor” and the 1960s concept of the “culture of poverty” to New Labour’s crusade against “problem families” and George Osborne’s condemnation of “skivers… sleeping off a life on benefits”. It’s a history rooted in the belief that poverty is more moral failure than social problem, the consequence of individual action rather than of structural inequities.
It is an attitude that has seeped into public consciousness. A 2007 study showed that Britons were more likely than most other Europeans to blame the poor for their own misfortunes. While the majority of Germans, French and Italians attributed poverty to social rather than personal causes, Britons were more inclined to see it as the product of “laziness” or “lack of willpower” rather than an issue of social injustice.
Poor people are, of course, as responsible for their actions as the rich. The issue, though, is that the choices open to poor people are far more constrained than those the wealthier can pursue and the most rational choices often help maintain the poor in their poverty. That is what Samuel Vines understood and too many policymakers don’t. The aim of social policy should be to enlarge the choices open to those with least means. A moralising view of poverty serves only to constrain choices even more.
There will continue to be platitudes about levelling up and hand-wringing about the inequities faced by working-class communities. But few will ask why so many still go around with wet feet. Or even notice that they do.