Anthony Ruddy (Teesside University)
Another UK general election is imminent and all the usual political machinations are taking place. The media spotlight is predictably fixed on the outcome on May 7th and hostilities between parties are rife. True to form, our political masters are squabbling over the same political issues of economy, health and immigration in the hope that millions of registered voters will pick their party. Despite the media coverage and time spent on speechmaking and general politicking over recent months, in the run-in there has been no real debate about poverty and no party has set out any serious proposals to address the UKs poverty crisis within their respective manifestos. Even though we have legislation in place to eradicate child poverty by 2020 (i.e. within the time period of the next elected government) there has been very little said (and even less done) concerning the millions of UK citizens who continue to live in poverty in one of the richest nations on Earth. How can this be so?
Perhaps the poverty crisis is so intractable (and repellent) that politicians might feel it’s just not worth the hassle or the risk when there are so many other important issues with which to grab the public’s attention. They might have a point. The latest estimates from Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) show approximately 3.5 million children living in poverty in the UK today – that is equivalent to more than one quarter of the UKs entire child population (based on official government definitions and data). Contrary to popular belief, most of these children live in households where at least one parent is working. Added to this, new data published by Poverty and Social Exclusion (PSE) shows that approximately half of all young people in the UK are also living in poverty – and this rate is increasing fast.
Although I sometimes wonder why we don’t just tackle these problems head on it doesn’t really surprise me that the major political parties have decided to dodge or maybe even ditch the poverty matter. What does surprise me is the relative lack of academic evidence and research about poverty in the UK for particular age groups and especially for young people. Currently there are around one million unemployed young people in the UK and many millions more who are under-employed in jobs which bring little in way of income, security or satisfaction. The social and economic impact of the global financial crisis and resulting austerity programmes which followed affected young people significantly but as of yet we know very little about the real consequences of this and what it really means to be young and poor in the UK today.
Recently the academic Journal of Youth Studies held its periodical international conference in Copenhagen and I was lucky to be a part of it. During the conference I was struck by the large number of research presentations from all over the world where poverty seemed to me to be the dominant theme although this was not articulated (or perhaps even intended) in some instances. The conference programme was chock-a-block with keynote presentations and research paper sessions where references to the structural context (i.e. poverty) were regular but not clearly stated. Only the opening keynote speech was explicit about the significance of poverty in research about young people. It seems to me that the academic community itself needs to do more to engage more directly with the concept of poverty, particularly in relation to youth, and to fulfil its own responsibilities by undertaking more research about youth poverty in the UK. Unless a greater effort is made I don’t think that the war on poverty can be won.
One of the most common misconceptions associated with people who are poor is that they don’t deserve to be helped because they are lazy, feckless and don’t want to work. This attitude towards the poor is one of the most contagious falsehoods in modern society. Poverty is not (and never has been) a function of individual pathology or human agency, it is in fact the exact opposite; as Wright-Mills wrote, it’s because the very structure of opportunities has collapsed in capitalist society that people fall to the bottom, not because they are weak but because the economic and political institutions of that society have failed.
Unfortunately these days it seems that when people need our help the most we tend to back off or worse still we point the finger (and poke fun) rather than lend a hand. The universal myth of undeserving poor is now so embedded and acceptable within society that the poor themselves are in denial – see, for example, how Shildrick and MacDonald (2013) have shown paradoxically, how people experiencing poverty deny their poverty and … ‘blame the poor’.
When I reflect on the feedback from my own doctoral research examining the effects of poverty amongst young people growing up in the North East of England I get no sense that the impoverished situation of my respondents was due to anything like idleness or because they were work-shy. During an interview with one young man I asked him about his hopes for the future and what he wanted to achieve most of all, and his response to me, which was characteristic of so many of those who took part in the research, was fixed on one thing – finding work:
“To get a job, I need a job but no-one will help me, I’d do anything, I swear to God, anything, I just want a job man, I just want to be able to get a job, I’ve tried and tried.”
The costs and consequences of unemployment, poverty and inequality are corrosive and cut across every aspect of social, economic and family life. For many of those who took part in my research the effects culminated in complex, messy lifestyles which were characterised by a challenging combination of deep financial hardship, social and economic discrimination, difficult home lives, a deep sense of regret and remorse, low self worth and poor mental health. Against this kind of experience, is it any wonder why young people who grow up in contexts of poverty tend to live their whole lives in poverty? With all of this weight and messiness in their lives at such a young age is it any wonder that young people feel increasingly fatalistic about the future and might never find their way out? For most of them (like most of us) I couldn’t help but wonder whether their problems might disappear overnight for the sake of a job and some money.
It might just be worth mentioning something about the simple idea of a basic citizen’s income such as that proposed by the Citizen’s Income Trust (see also Ailsa Mckay’s piece in issue 7 of Discover Society) We all know that money is the basic common denominator in our lives and the benchmark against which most of us will be measured by our fellow citizens. Money really does make the world go around and cash, whether we like it or not, is King. So, in the spirit of Occam’s razor then, wouldn’t it make more sense to make available a basic citizen’s income for every person who lives in the community based on an unconditional, universal and non-discriminatory payment to allow all people to live and participate in the societies to which they belong as a condition of birth?
I have a particular interest in research about poverty, it means a great deal to me personally and professionally and it makes me angry whenever I think about it – I also know that I share this interest with many other people who believe, like I do, that poverty is a shameful and dishonourable stain on the conscience of UK society and that it needs to be resolved. What we say and do (or don’t say and don’t do) to address the issue of poverty in the UK says everything about us as a nation, as citizens of that nation and as individuals.
Anthony Ruddy is an Intelligence Specialist at North Yorkshire County Council and Associate Lecturer in Sociology at Teesside University.