Is poverty a social problem in the UK?

Is poverty a social problem in the UK today?

Whether or not we regard Poverty as a social problem depends on:

  • how we define and measure ‘poverty’
  • the extent to which we think individuals are responsible for their own poverty
  • our perspective on what we think the consequences of other people’s poverty will be for society as a whole
  • Whether we ‘care less’ about other people’s poverty.

In this post I’m going to focus on one definition of poverty: ‘destitution’, as defined by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (source below)

Is destitution problem in the UK?

The JRF defines destitution as when an individual cannot afford the basic material essentials which are necessary to leading a secure life. These essentials include housing, food, weather appropriate clothing and footwear, heating, electricity and basic toiletries.

According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 1.5 million people in the UK were in ‘destitute’ at some point in 2017, the latest figures available.

It’s worth noting briefly that nearly everyone who was (and probably is currently) destitute was either homeless or in temporary or sheltered accommodation.

Destitution in the UK is a social problem…

If you believe that everyone has the right to the basic material necessities of life, then you’d probably regard the fact of such a huge number of people being destitute as a social problem. This certainly seems to be the view of those at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

If you watch the video below in which the JRF define destitution there are lots of references to how it’s not acceptable for people to be destitute today.

If you’re the kind of person that’s upset by other people’s suffering, then you’d probably also regard this number of people as being destitute as a social problem – it doesn’t take that much empathy to realise that the state of destitution is extremely unpleasant.

Not only can being destitute involve being hungry and cold and being excluded from many aspects of social life (because you’ve got no money!), it can also mean living in a state of anxiety over the future if you can’t afford to pay the rent, and maybe depression that your situation has no end in sight.

Destitution today might also be the breeding ground for future problems for individuals and society – a hungry child not concentrating in school will get lower educational outcomes and be less employable in the future; someone living in a cold damp house now is more likely to develop long term chronic health problems – both situations which could mean those people being a long term drain on the nation’s resources in the future.

A further reason you might regard destitution as a problem is because of the non-necessity of it! We clearly have the resources in the UK to ensure that every single individual at least has the basic necessities of life, and yet there are 1.5 million people who lead lives so insecure that they’re not having their basic needs met!

People are probably more likely to think destitution is a problem if the reasons for it are not the fault of the individuals experiencing it – if they have fallen into destitution because of ill-health, a relationship breakdown, abuse, losing a job, or even something as basic as a high cost of living (rent, bills etc.). In such situations, maybe it is desirable that the benefits system kicks in and acts as a safety net.

The extremes of destitution existing alongside extremes of wealth might bother some people because of the social injustice of it, especially if they believe that destitution exists because of the means whereby the rich have got wealthy.

Finally, destitution might well lead to crime and social unrest. If people are hungry they might turn to crime to feed themselves, and if they collectively come to perceive their situation as one that is not fair or just, social unrest may be the result.

So it would seem that there several reasons, emotional and rational for why you might perceive destitution as a social problem!

Destitution in the UK is NOT a social problem…

Firstly, if you’re being hard-nosed about it you might point out that 1.5 million people is not that many – it’s only 2.5% of the population. And according to the JRF 2018 report into destitution, this number is declining.

The definition/ measurement of destitution used by JRF is quite ‘soft’ – someone only had to go without two of those basic needs above for a month in 2017 and they were counted in the statistics. You might think it’s not that bad going hungry for one month in a year, it’s not starvation, it’s unlikely to lead to long term malnutrition.

Then there’s the fact that you simply might not believe in individual rights. You might believe that individuals are not ‘entitled’ to anything, and if they fall on hard times it’s tough luck.

Or you might believe in radical individual responsibility and think that if individuals are destitute, for whatever reason, it is their job to lift themselves out of it, in which case the problem of destitution isn’t a social problem, it’s an individual problem, although this particular view point is quite anti-sociological, in fact it’s possibly the very opposite of the sociological imagination.

Even if you’re more left-wing and believe that the individual is NOT entirely responsible for their own poverty, but rather it’s something to do with the system, then it’s not poverty as such that’s ‘the real problem’ – it’s whatever you believe has caused poverty.

Finally, even if there are identifiable correlations between destitution and crime/ social unrest, it might be that with more measures of control (e.g. harsher penalties, more police, as right realists suggest) we might still be able to mitigate the worst effects of destitution.

Conclusions. .

Whether you think destitution in the UK is a social problem very much depends on your values.

If you’re leaning towards the left you’re more likely to believe that povert has social causes and that more equality is good, so are more likely to perceive destitution as a social problem with social solutions.

If you’re more right leaning, you’re more likely to frame destitution as an individual problem, have less of a problem with higher levels of inequality and think that individuals and society can and should adapt to cope with a certain degree of destitution, which individuals largely bring on themselves.

Finally, whether you think it’s a problem or not depends on your definition and measurement of it, and TBH with the soft definition used by the JRF I’m actually finding myself leaning to the view that destitution in the UK is NOT a serious social problem.

Sources/ find out more

Trump’s Tax Bill: Another Neoliberal Policy.

In mid December 2017, The U.S. Senate voted through a tax-bill which will deliver a dramatic reduction in America’s corporate tax rate – from 35% to 20% – along with a reduction in inheritance tax which will allow the America’s wealthiest individuals to pass more tax-free money to their children (or other heirs). This Guardian article provides further details.

Trump Corporations.jpg

For A-level sociology students studying global development, this represents yet another example of a neoliberal policy – cutting taxes is a key aspect of the economic doctrine of neoliberalism.

The supposed rational behind the bill is to stimulate economic growth, but it is also likely to widen inequality and the bill is also predicted to add $1 trillion to the national debt

It’s also interesting to note that Donald Trump ran for president as an outsider who would stand up for the working people, but now it seems that it’s the wealthy, share-holding corporate class that’s going to benefit most from this policy.

 

Merry Debtmass…

A 2016 poll by Nationwide found that the average Brit spends £645 on Christmas. On average, people in the UK spend…

  • £117 on Christmas presents for their partner,
  • £145 on presents for their children,
  • £20 on their pet (lucky pets!).

christmas-debt

This broadly corresponds with the Bank of England’s findings on Christmas spending which found that our spending in December increasing by around £500 per month. OK they’re not exactly the same, but in the same sort of ‘region’, and not crazily different (to use the technical term).

Looked at by household – A Survey by Go Compare (1) found that the average British household expects to spend £753 on Christmas festivities this year.  Collectively that’s a staggering £21 billion splashed out on presents, food and drink, parties and decorations.

Regional Variations in Spending 

Unsurprisingly, households on lower incomes spend a higher proportion of their monthly income on Christmas than – According to this BBC article, people in the North East spend around 26%, while in London the figure falls to around 16% of monthly household income.

The article also cites anecdotal evidence that people in poorer areas spend more on presents than people in richer areas.

Debt and Christmas

Again, according to the above BBC article, The Money Advice Trust, a charity which runs the National Debtline, polled 2,000 people and found 37% are putting Christmas presents on credit. NB As far as I can tell these are 2015 figures (it’s not that clear from the article!)

  • 34 percent borrowed money to cover the cost of Christmas presents – figure equating to an estimated 16.9 million people.
  • More than one in five (21 percent)  borrowed to put food on the Christmas table – equating to an estimated 10.4 million people.

All in all, it seems like there’s a lot of evidence that for the poorest third of households, it’s not so much Christmas, but more like Debtmass, which offers broad support for the validity of a Marxist theory of Christmas. 

Notes 

(1) NB – An interesting point about this research, is that one finding is unlikely to valid… half of households said they would finance their income from their current account. Unfortunately for Go Compare, the Median household in the UK has only £10 a month left over after all expenditure is taken into account…. thus it simply isn’t possible (assuming these ONS stats are valid) for this to be the case.

 

 

 

 

Social Mobility Highest Around London, Lowest in some Rural Areas

According to a report released today, social mobility is generally highest around London and lowest in rural areas…

How Social Mobility Varies by Local Authority in England in 2017

social mobility England 2017.png

NB – There’s a nice ‘interactive’ infographic at the link above!

London and its environs (mostly Surrey) have the highest levels of social mobility, while rural areas generally have lower levels of mobility.

Interestingly it isn’t just deprivation and wealth which predict social mobility… some wealthy areas like West Berkshire and Crawley perform badly for social mobility – in these areas, it is very difficult for children born into poor backgrounds to climb the income ladder.

Conversely, some of the most deprived areas are “hotspots”, providing good education, employment opportunities and housing for their most disadvantaged residents.
These include London boroughs with big deprived populations such as Tower Hamlets and Hackney.

The main reason for variations in social mobility highlighted by the report is the lack of available jobs, especially well-paying jobs, which is a real problem in some of the more rural areas.

It might be interesting to… (and I might play around with this later)

  • Compare this data to deprivation indices and see how far wealth holds back social mobility.
  • Compare this data to population density… Just a hunch, but surely all other things being equal, the denser the population the more (realistic) job opportunities?
  • Compare this data to educational achievement and school type… to see if schools really do make a difference at the regional level.
  • Take a sample of the lowest social mobility areas and the highest (they’d need to be similar) and just find out as much as possible about both areas to try and explain these differences….

 

 

$450 million for a Painting – WTF..?

So, you’re a multi-billionaire, you have $450 million kicking about, but your’re bored of all the usual gaudy bling bullshit…

 

This poll was inspired by today’s news that Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘Salvator Mundi’, painting sold for $400m at auction today, with a grand total of $450 million once Christie’s auction house had added on its $50 million commission.

expensive painting
Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘Masterpiece’

Now we may never actually know who bought this painting, but assuming it’s an individual (although  it may have been bought by a company or conglomerate), this raises the question of how much wealth you must have to be able to spend this much money on a painting!

Surly we must be looking at someone worth over $10 billion, so probably someone from the top 100 or so wealthiest people, possibly one of these from Forbe’s rich list, given that it’s unlikely that anyone’s going to risk more than 5% of their TNW on one investment, unless they really LOVE renaissance art or of course.

Anyway, whoever the anonymous buyer is, all mega-purchases like this do for me is remind of the existence of the global super-rich – that handful of billionaires that make up the top 0.00001% of the world’s population – domains like Christie’s auction house are their’s, and purchases of items in the several millions of dollars a regular occurrence.

This event is just a painful reminder of how much of a toss the global elite don’t give about global poverty. Between them, those present at that auction house yesterday could have transformed the lives of so many. NB I know it’s not THAT simple – money for development often gets misspent, it has unintended consequences etc etc… so I am being a bit idealistic, all I’m trying to do here is get some perspective on the enormous sum spent on that painting.

Here’s one calculation that does just that…

  • According to calculations by Oxfam, £250 000 is the sum required to provide clean drinking water to 16 800 people in Ethiopia.
  • $450 000 000/ £275 000 = 1636.36 rec
  • 1636.36 * 16 800 = 27 490, 848 people.

I don’t know about you, but I’m really not comfortable with the co-existence of global problems such as lack of access to clean water and a global Eloi jet setting around the world buying high status items at luxury auction houses.