Why was it painful to attend the All Party Parliamentary Group on Poverty on Monday? Why do some politicians find it so hard to accept that poverty has got anything to do with a lack of money?
Sitting in a packed Committee Room 8 of the House of Parliament on Monday evening, it was painful to hear some of the firsthand testimonies of what it is like to live with poverty on a daily basis. Kayleigh, one of the ‘stars’ of the BBC2 ‘Poor Kids’ documentary, spoke with immense dignity about the reality of being brought up by a father who has been unable to find work for the past ten years, and the sense of stigma, and the painful choices of what to go without that this entailed. Brian Woods, from True Vision and producer of the documentary spoke of the wider challenges that Kayleigh and the other ‘Poor Kids’ faced. Captain Jonny Smith of the Salvation Army in Southwark told us of a conversation with the friend – who can’t him to chat on the internet after school, because his mother has to turn the electricity off to save money. Judith spoke of having to go without food to be able to afford to take her daughter to visit University.
But what was even more painful – in spite of all this – was to hear Maria Miller, Minister with responsibility for Child Poverty seemingly in denial that poverty was anything to do with a lack of money. It was painful to hear Maria claiming that if a mother had to turn off the electricity to save money it was somehow a result of her own failure at money management than a basic lack of income. Why is it that people in poverty are somehow, ultimately, always made to carry the can?
Of course, poverty is about a lot more than money… More than 20 years ago, the seminal ‘Faith in the City’ report made this clear: “Poverty is not only about shortage of money. It is about rights and relationships; about how people are treated and how they regard themselves; about powerlessness, exclusion and loss of dignity. Yet the lack of an adequate income is at its heart”
Even when virtually all the evidence points to a lack of money being at the heart of poverty, why do politicians (and many others, it has to be said), continue to deny this fact? And why do Ministers want to steer the debate away from the elephant in the room: The growing inequalities of wealth and income between rich and poor in the UK?
To be clear, I’m not denying Maria Miller’s sincerity or integrity as an individual – it was clear from the meeting that she passionately cares about tackling poverty. Nor would I wish to decry that the Government is committed to tackling child poverty or social mobility.
So why do politicians persist in denying that the lack of an adequate income is at the heart of poverty? Here are a few possible explanations:
Firstly, it is simply ‘easier’ to put the persistence of poverty down to some moral (or other) failure on the part of the poor than to look for any deeper causes. If only they could manage their money better; if only their aspirations could be raised; if only they could be weaned off their dependencies on drugs, alcohol – or welfare; if only they could strive harder to find work and to work harder once they have…
Secondly, there is what social scientists would label ‘Cognitive coping strategies’: Many people deeply want to believe that the ‘way things are’ is based on some essentially reasonable ‘natural order.’ As Joseph Rowntree Foundation discovered, people make assumptions about the virtues of those with high incomes and the vices of those on low incomes in order to justify existing inequalities.
Third: In an age of austerity, when Government simply doesn’t have the money to spend (or instinctively believes in smaller Government) it is much easier to believe that income transfers don’t matter. When money is scarce, it is simply more efficacious to focus on ways of tackling poverty that don’t involve spending money.
Fourth, is the fact that most politicians have never personally experienced what it is like to struggle to make ends meet – and simply can’t make the leap of imagination involved in understanding what that involves. If you have never had to count the pennies at the end of the week, or go without in any real sense, can you really understand that choices that those in that situation have to make – food or bills; school uniform or rent?
Or lastly – maybe they are right? Maybe money doesn’t matter. But try telling that to Kayleigh, Judith – or thousands like them who struggle with the daily battle to make ends meet…