There is a pernicious kind of argument which continues to crop up online, and it is the suggestion that there no such thing as real poverty in the UK.
Often there’s a comparison with Africa – because poor and starving people in the UK don’t look like the images we see on NSPCC adverts, so therefore they don’t exist, right?
“Are you telling me people in this country are going hungry? Seriously? I really have great trouble believing that. I don’t think people in this country go hungry. Are these people buying lottery tickets? Are they maybe buying the odd cigarette? I’d like to have some of these starving people in Britain produced.
There are real people starving in the world, and they’re not in the United Kingdom”
– Edwina Currie October 2011
This is a wholly facile argument. The existence of poor people in African countries does not negate the existence of poor people in the UK.
Another common suggestion is that the poor in Britain aren’t really poor – instead it’s just that they’re wasting their income on ‘non-essentials’:
“Claimants will only be able to make priority purchases such as food, clothing, energy, travel and housing. The purchase of luxury goods such as cigarettes, alcohol, Sky Television and gambling will be prohibited.”
– Alec Shelbrooke MP, December 2012 (promoting his ‘Welfare Card’ bill in Parliament)
But are these ‘non-essentials’ really luxury items?
They’re all legal. They’re all cheap (unless abused – which is an issue in and of itself).
Are we really suggesting that the poor should have just enough money to afford food, and maybe shelter, but no more?
That the poorest in our society should have no life whatsoever, beyond ‘survival’? Do we really think that is going to end well?
Sky TV subscriptions are a particular target – even though they’re often things that people are tied intobefore they become poor (and it’s prohibitively expensive to cancel a subscription early).
I don’t have a subscription myself, so I had to look up the cost: it’s £21.50 (plus another £14.50 line rental) per calendar month.
So about £8.37 a week.
That means that – for most people – cancelling their Sky subscription wouldn’t even cancel out the impact of the bedroom tax (average cost: £14 per week).
But it would mean cutting off their phone line, and internet access – which means (as of October) cutting off their access to any and all benefits, and isolating them and their children in their home (without any TV, if they’ve been relying on Sky for a while…).
To save £8.37.
Even so, many of our poorest don’t actually have pay-for-TV subscriptions.
7% of Brits cannot afford fruit or vegetables every day;
5% can’t even afford meat or fish every other day.
7% of parents skip meals to so that their children don’t have to.
8% can’t afford to send their children on school trips.
4% of children only have second-hand clothes.
6% of children have no computer or internet access at home.
9% of households can’t afford heating bills. 10% of households are damp, and can’t afford to either treat it or to move away.
This is what British poverty looks like, now – today.
We don’t see it, because we train ourselves not to – or because they’re displayed before us as freaks on the Jeremy Kyle show, or just because quite a lot of it really isn’t very visible (it is, after all, happening in other peoples’ homes)
And when Brits do die from poverty they invisibly freeze to death at home, or kill themselves when they can no longer cope. We don’t have people starving in the street (but maybe only because we have 350,000 people getting food from Food Banks). We do have children going hungry in the classroom, and their parents going hungrier.
Some (but by no means all) of these people will have things – they may have a Sky TV subscription, they may smoke or drink. They may own TVs or games consoles.
It’s often because people become poor – so they may very well still own the things they did from beforehand. But it’s mostly because in Britain today, those things are cheap.
But in any case, owning a TV doesn’t mean you magically have enough food for your children every single day. Even if you sold it, you’d have enough for a meal – and then your children would be starving in a house with nothing to do.
Food, shelter and heating are expensive – as well as being expenses you absolutely cannot escape, that recur constantly.