Just Be Grateful

Jamie Martin

  • Breadline Britain: The Rise of Mass Poverty by Stewart Lansley and Joanna Mack
    Oneworld, 334 pp, £9.99, February 2015, ISBN 978 1 78074 544 2
  • Inequality and the 1 Per Cent by Danny Dorling
    Verso, 234 pp, £12.99, September 2014, ISBN 978 1 78168 585 3

There are two standard views of the relationship between poverty and inequality. The first is that there isn’t one: how the poor fare has nothing to do with how much better off the rich are. What determines their well-being is growth, not distribution. If the pie is getting bigger, what matters isn’t the way it’s divided up, but that everyone will have more to eat. Measures designed to reduce inequality, like higher taxes or more generous benefits, will slow growth and hurt the poor as much as, if not more than, everyone else. On this view, there’s an unavoidable trade-off between efficiency and equality: in a modern economy, you can’t have both at once. For the last few decades, economists and politicians have prioritised efficiency. Some have even argued that inequality is good for the poor, because the promise of great wealth encourages innovation and hard work, thus stimulating the growth that helps everyone. These arguments no longer inspire as much confidence as they used to – not least because there’s little evidence for them. Britain’s national income has doubled over the last three decades, but so have key poverty measurements. In Breadline Britain Stewart Lansley and Joanna Mack record that more than twice as many people today report skipping meals as did in the early 1980s, and that twice as many households – 33 per cent – don’t meet minimum living standards. Since the 1990s, the number of households without adequate heating, or enough bedrooms, has tripled. Fewer can pay for healthy food, rid their homes of damp, or put away regular savings.

Breadline Britain makes a strong case for the second standard view of the relationship between poverty and inequality: that poverty is, first and foremost, a problem of distribution. As the 1 per cent take a larger share of national income, less is available for the rest. As they get richer, and acquire more political influence, they become less willing to pay for the public goods needed to raise living conditions at the bottom. According to Lansley and Mack, poverty shouldn’t be thought of as an absolute measure, based on a fixed and timeless understanding of the minimum levels of consumption required to survive. What people need to participate in society, and to live without precariousness, changes over time in accordance with broader social and economic transformations. Owning goods today that the poor could only dream of in the past – like a TV or a fridge – doesn’t necessarily mean that you don’t live in poverty. As levels of income change across society, so too should measures of poverty.[*]

Opponents of the welfare state take the first view, claiming that nothing less than starvation-level hunger should qualify as a marker of extreme poverty. And since starvation has been more or less eradicated in the West, they argue that what remains today is just inequality, which is much less of a problem, so long as the poor are better off than they used to be. ‘However rich a society,’ as John Moore, secretary of state for social security under Thatcher, once put it, ‘it will drag the incubus of relative poverty with it up the income scale. The poverty lobby would in their definition find poverty in Paradise.’ As national income rises, the poor have no right to claim a larger share in it; since they’re obviously much better off than they were in the 19th century, we should be grateful for capitalism’s advances and focus our energies elsewhere. The lived experience of the poor is irrelevant.

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[*] Lansley and Mack take their data from a report issued in March 2013 by the Poverty and Social Exclusion project, which continues research begun in 1983 to measure the number of people who fall below what the population as a whole thinks should be the minimum standard of living. A household falls below that minimum, according to the PSE, if its income is insufficiently high that it cannot afford three or more ‘necessities’. Twenty-five items and activities were thought necessary for adults by 50 per cent of the people interviewed, and 24 items or activities for children. These include essentials – heating, a damp-free home for adults; fresh fruit and vegetables and a warm winter coat for children – but also things not considered basic needs, which for adults include the means to visit family in hospital and to pursue a hobby or leisure activity, and for children an outdoor space in which to play.