Expectations are the most overlooked element regarding poverty, when considering its importance in industrially developed countries. When it is claimed that poverty is intrinsically linked to certain behaviour patterns (as I am about to do in the article); it is often sighted that (a) we live in a ‘relatively’ rich country and (b) poverty is not an excuse for creating crime, disorder or apparent acts of wilful neglect.
The first thing that needs to be acknowledged is that poverty is relative and not absolute. An often sighted example is that in today’s society we have material goods which we could barely conceive of 10, 20 or 50 years ago. However true; sighting the technological advancements is a red herring. The introduction of the washing machine, mobile phone or an internet connection has (over time) changed from being considered luxuries available to the few; to be considered necessities as they become mass consumed items. This changes their function within society. One is at a disadvantage if they do not possess one of these items. So a direct material comparison to the past is trite as it misunderstands the expectations that are associated with technological advancements within a society. Those who refer to the trainers or mobile phones that those who are economical poor seem to own, miss the point that these same people often do not own other; less ostentatious, even practical material goods.
We have to look at the problems facing those who are economically poor in relation to others in their social context; to understand how (essentially) a lack of access to funds is prohibitive in both life ambitions and aspirations.
The problem with poverty is that it excludes individuals from activities, experiences and lifestyles which they are surrounded by. Those babies born into poorer families are unhealthier and die younger. They achieve worse results in school (primary and secondary), and are less likely to go onto further education. They are more likely to be victims of crime, and to find themselves in fuel poverty or indeed be the perpetrator of crime and subsequently find themselves in prison. These facts are not a sign of recent trends nor are they limited to the UK. So why there are these intrinsic links to reduced life choices and why does it happen?
Quite simply finance creates contingency. Even if there is not a global economic crisis those with fewer finances at their disposal are more likely to be restricted in a consumer led, capitalist free market society. If you own a small shop; your contingencies are small and if there is a change in tariffs you are likely to struggle to make profits. If you are a part time employee your rights (or lack of them) mean that you are more likely to have your hours cut or loose your job. If you are on the minimum wage that wage just bought you less than it did before and if you are unemployed there are fewer resources that you can access. You have no contingency, no financial ability to change your current life condition.
We live in a country where food, hot water, heating, gas and electricity are services expected by all but are provided at a charge. This means that those who find themselves in ‘fuel poverty’ (those who spend 10% or more of their salary on heating) – are at a position of relative poverty. There are over 5 million households who are in this position (over 15 million people). That’s 15 million people who for a variety of different reasons have no financial contingency, who have almost no ability to change, improve or adapt their living or life conditions. These financial restrictions help to create a mind-set where people are more susceptible than the average* person to changes made by powerful forces in our society.
This creates a feeling of animosity and frustration especially when dealing with the authorities. To take just one example of how financial situations can create a negative/defensive mind-set – let’s take a brief look at benefits. When those who would earn more by receiving benefits than they would in paid work are criticised; it should be remembered that if the minimum wage pays less than an individual would receive on benefits then perhaps the minimum wage has been set too low! The vast majority of benefit recipients receive less than £100 a week (taking into account concessions in rent) plus another £13 to £20 per child (depending on age). If you earn the minimum wage (are over 21 and work a 30 hour week) then you’ll earn around £180 a week (before tax). So you can see that the figures can be remarkably – or worryingly similar as well as despairingly low. Try taking an annual holiday abroad, owning a car, making a down payment on a home, paying for childcare or a degree.
Poverty and living in a consumer society
So what happens when you are economically poor and unable to change or improve that situation? What if you live in an area of high crime, low employment or wages? What if most or all of your family and friends are in a similar situation? What if you have never worked, most of your family have never worked or left your estate, borough or city? And crucially what if the only time you encounter authorities or law enforcement officers is when they are taking something away from you… taking away the little personal or social space which you have. Adding complexity to already congested and contested territories.
Some wonder why there is a body of people – many of them young, who feel disenfranchised in the UK today. They wonder why some people resent authority figures or seem to have little or no respect for the communities that they live in – and little time for discussion or reflective thought. I don’t wonder why; but I do wonder why as a society we do so little to change the ever prevalent status quo by supporting constructs of a tiered society.
This article was written in 2011 and as such is written in the context of the social and political conditions of the time