It feels as though the Victorian idea of ‘the deserving poor’ have largely dropped out of our consciousness. There are the frugal poor, the people using all the tips and tricks recommended by governments and gurus to try to keep our heads above water. While advice about saving costs and keeping warm is welcome, it freights the implication that the poor have some hand in their own misery. ‘If only they could be a bit wiser, a bit more canny, then everything would be OK’. Apart from that, even right wing politicians don’t feel much need to divvy up the poor between deserving and profligate. The poor are now one homogenous mass of food-bank using, low income living individuals, occasionally doled out a bit of help from the centre. Put bluntly, we are now a society content to live with high levels of endemic poverty – set alongside an elite that clearly deserve to be rich, and are entitled to become even richer.
Perhaps this is the chief legacy of Thatcherism. The import of the notably American idea that we make, or discard, our own opportunities to be self-made and wealthy. Consequently, poverty is simply individual failure. Despite the mountain of evidence that refutes this simplistic narrative it can feel as though it’s now welded into the psyche of modern Britain. The very fact that we can tolerate such significant rates of poverty, including child poverty, supports the view that we have somehow imbibed and owned this destructive myth. While there is general support for striking nurses and paramedics, there aren’t yet massed crowds present in support asking why an employee of a national health service should need the support of charity in order to live. Compare this with France, where a million people demonstrated in response to the proposal to change the state pension age from 62 to 64.
Last week an MP suggested that if someone couldn’t live on £35K a year without using food banks ‘something is wrong with your budgeting’. I found this reminiscent of the remark made a decade ago, that in the face of a strike by petrol tanker drivers, people should store a can of petrol in their garage. Apart from the lunacy that this would add to shortages by encouraging stock-piling (and potential danger in holding unnecessary petrol supplies at home), there was also the implication that everyone with a car had a garage. It appears to be a constant thread throughout the gaffs of wealthy politicians, that they are wildly out-of-touch with the circumstances of many voters.
Which brings me to the undeserving rich. It is not unreasonable to expect that wealthy people in public life would want to ensure they have done at least the minimum to contribute to the public good. Which is why the tax affairs of Nadhim Zahawi rightly raise serious questions about his suitability for political office. The penalty imposed by HMRC is a strong indication that Zahawi has (at best) been fairly uninterested in paying his correct contribution to the NHS, and everything else funded by the public for our collective wellbeing. I am sure that there will be voices speaking in his defence, implying that he is very important and very busy. Yet there seems to be no end of money that can be found by rich individuals to ensure accountants let them pay the minimum amount of tax. Why not spend a little bit of money on other accountants, who will ensure you never pay less than you should?
“Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power.”Pope Francis as quoted in The Pope, the Bible and Trickle-Down Economics, by Obery M. Hendricks, Jr.
In 2022 the Joseph Rowntree Foundation set out a ‘minimum income standard’ (MIS) for the UK. If the nurse mentioned above is part of a couple with two children, then the JRF calculate that the household MIS would need to be £43,400. Given our current inflation this figure might now be closer to £50K and, it is important to emphasise, this is a minimum income. It can hardly come as a surprise that a nurse earning £35K might need to use a food bank.
Even if MPs lack personal experience of poverty or the challenges of low income, there is no excuse for a failure to engage with reputable and independent sources of data and analysis. Whether it is in a lack of attention to personal tax obligations, or the choice to live only in an echo-chamber of the likeminded, there is plenty of evidence that the undeserving rich are happily thriving in post-pandemic Britain. Change is long, long overdue.