There are many definitions of poverty. Apart from the commonly-held view that it is material deprivation causing starvation and homelessness, another opinion sees 'poverty' as denoting a variety of forms of societal exclusion, whether economic, social, material or political. However, both definitions share the idea that 'poverty' is exclusion from what society deems a normal standard of living, and, at the same time, of powerlessness to change the situation.
There is little doubt that in England a form of poverty not only exists, but is extremely commonplace. However, one cannot compare poverty in England to that of the 'Third World' or the 'South,' because the policies of British governments since the end of the Second World War have essentially ensured that material poverty on that scale does not really exist in this country any more. Therefore, in this article I am not trying to argue that poverty in England is as pressing an issue as it is in developing countries, since English poverty is of a different nature and extent, and born of different circumstances.
Our type of poverty presents difficult problems to those trying to tackle it. This is highlighted by the fact that Britain was the first industrialised nation to be made the subject of an independent development report, which was called Poverty in Plenty: A Human Development Report for the UK, published in 2000 by the United Nations Environment and Development UK Committee (UNED-UK). It is still the most comprehensive report available on poverty, employment, housing and the environment in present-day Britain.
At the time the report was written, the committee found that Britain ranked highly --tenth—in the Human Development Index (HDI), a system based on life expectancy, literacy, education and standard of living. By 2006, however, it had fallen to eighteenth place, despite having the fifth largest economy in the world, according to market exchange rates. This clearly indicates that, although England is generally perceived as a prosperous and wealthy country, significant class inequality still exists.
The report also discovered that, despite its relatively high HDI score, Britain does not do as well in the Human Poverty Index for industrial countries (HPI-2). This index measures mortality rates (the number of people not expected to reach sixty), functional illiteracy, income (the number living on less than 50 % of the median disposable income) and long term unemployment ('long term' refers to periods of twelve months or more). It seeks to identify areas of social exclusion, rather than just material deprivation. Britain ranks fifteenth out of seventeen countries, only slightly better off than Ireland and the USA. This index proves that a country's economic wealth does not guarantee that wealth will be fairly distributed; on the contrary, countries with large economies and highly integrated markets often exhibit economic inequalities.
The countries that score highest in the HPI-2 are Sweden, Norway, Finland, the Netherlands and Denmark, all of which have strong, well-funded welfare systems. In Britain, the welfare state suffered a great blow during the eighties under the Thatcher-led Conservative government. Thatcher pledged to bolster the economy by lowering taxes for businesses and the rich, and this was essentially paid for by slashing budgets for state benefits, such as pensions and income support. The result of this was that between 1977 and 1992, the number of people in Britain living on less than half of the national average income rose from 10% to 25%. This number has stayed almost exactly the same ever since, because the Labour government has failed time and again to rectify the problem.
Thus, even though the economy continues to perform well, almost a quarter of people in Britain live below the poverty line as established by the HPI-2. The UNED-UK report concludes that before the government can improve the situation, it must recognise that national economic prosperity does not ensure a good overall standard of living. Ann Pettifor, the director of Jubilee 2000, puts it thus in the report: "The economics that dominates Britain - loosely known as globalisation - is a kind of religion which dictates that the worship of money should take preference over common human values like the sharing of wealth and the right to a decent life."
This is one side of the argument on poverty in England and Britain, focussing on the economic forces and ideologies that underpin social exclusion and material deprivation. People working in development assess poverty very objectively, seeing it as the product of societal forces and power structures. However, there is another school of thought, largely concentrated amongst conservative thinkers and politicians, that views poverty as a result of personal choices and therefore a matter of individual responsibility.
One of the most qualified, and outspoken, writers on poverty in England is the retired doctor Theodore Dalrymple. He has written frequently in opposition to liberalism, arguing that many left-leaning thinkers blame social structures for the criminal and anti-social actions of individuals. In his book Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass, Dalrymple suggests that this liberal idea that criminals should not be blamed for their actions has gradually led to an undermining of the values that bind functional societies together. In a series of topical essays, he argues that poverty in England therefore cannot be blamed on social or economic structures, or on racism, sexism, or any other form of discrimination, but on the mindset of the underclass. He illustrates all his arguments with personal anecdotes about his experiences as a doctor in a poor London borough. In the following passage, he recounts the response of a medical student from Madras when he asked him whether he would describe a patient's problem as 'poverty': "He said it was not....her problem was that she accepted no limits to her behaviour, that she did not fear the possibility of hunger, the condemnation of her own parents or neighbours, or God. In other words, the squalor of England was not economic but spiritual, moral and cultural."
Dalrymple goes on to argue that the poverty he witnessed when working in under-developed countries in Africa and south-east Asia is not of the same genesis as that in England. He claims that, even though the vast majority of people in England do not have to worry about their basic dietary or housing requirements, as is the case in the developing world, in no other place has he seen "the loss of dignity, the self-centredness, the spiritual and emotional vacuity, or the sheer ignorance of how to live that I see daily in England." For Dalrymple, this has led him to conclude that although England is a prosperous and industrialised nation, "the worst poverty is in England -and it is not material poverty but poverty of the soul."
These are strong words, implying a completely different root cause of poverty to the one normally presented. The idea that poverty derives from a personal mindset, that it is the responsibility of the individual, will inevitably provoke condemnation from the left, but Dalrymple might have a point -to some extent. Although income is concentrated, there are opportunities to gain a solid education. In this context, Dalrymple highlights the disproportionately high number -around one quarter—of British medical students from an Asian background, to argue that despite growing up in what are often low-income families, people can succeed if they have sufficient discipline and will. From his perspective, a large number of people in England, mainly from white communities, almost choose to fail: many reject education early on because they do believe it will help them in real life. As a result, they do not gain the qualifications that would allow them to get long-term skilled employment.
In addition to its high poverty rates, the UK also has some of the highest rates in Europe for teenage pregnancy, teenage drug and alcohol abuse, and divorce. Some critics see these trends as part of a general moral deterioration, perhaps deriving from the loss of religious principles and sense of community. A recent poll by the Guardian/ICM Research found that only a third of those questioned would describe themselves as religious, and 82% agreed that religion does more harm to societies than good. The poll suggests that England is becoming increasingly secular, perhaps in response to the more widespread tensions between different faith groups. However, it is hard to make the case that it is entirely secular; it is still living within the remnants of a Christian ideology and morality that have only recently begun to decline. Arguably, Christian ideas of right and wrong, of sin and virtue, are still prevalent in the England.
Furthermore, secularism need not imply a loss of morality or personal responsibility, but means rather that the rules guiding society should not be based on religion or superstition; arguably, religious values could be superseded by something better and more humane. We should not lose sight of the fact that poverty has existed in England for as long as Christianity has, and, despite the greater strength of Christianity in the past, the various Poor Laws and the nineteenth-century workhouses did not do as much as the welfare state to reduce material deprivation. Perhaps the reason why the decline of religion seems to be linked to the increase in poverty in England is simply that religious belief has not been replaced by anything tangible, making us aware of the gap that it used to fill. Therefore there are two dominant arguments about poverty in England and the UK. Both conservatives and liberals recognise that there is a significant problem; however, liberals and those working in development tend to place the blame for poverty rates on economic factors, whereas conservatives often argue that they are the result of declining morality, and perhaps of a lack of religious faith. One side thus sees poverty as the responsibility of governments, and the other as the responsibility of individuals.
Without a doubt, personal choices have an impact on poverty levels: the choice to spend Ł5 a day on cigarettes, drugs, or drink, the choice not to stay in education, or the choice not to look for work, all negatively affect a person's circumstances. But such people are not the whole underclass, by a long shot, and it stands to reason that most people would not live in poverty if they had the opportunity to escape it.
Thus it seems that the most pressing challenge faced by those living in poverty in England is that of gaining recognition from the politicians responsible for implementing social and economic policies. This would require leaders to accept that a strong and stable economy does not guarantee the eradication of social exclusion, and that open markets and globalisation are often implemented at the expense of sustainability. Journalist Nick Davies is perhaps the most important writer campaigning for this recognition. I shall close with a quote from his book Dark Heart: The Shocking Truth About Hidden Britain:
"There is no crusade against poverty in Britain. No leading politician demands full employment for the country's workforce. No prominent public figure insists that the wealth which was taken from the poor and given to the rich during the conservative years should now be returned. There is only the immense jabber of the powerful who are surrounded by the victims of their affluence and who yet continue to know nothing of the undiscovered country of the poor." --Alexander Flux