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Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Poverty: What Poverty?

The IFS [a highly respected think-tank] has guesstimated that the standard of living of a significant proportion of the UK population will decline in real terms [in purchasing power] by around 7% by the end of 2013. Price increases have been accelerating as the Bank of England has pumped more money into the stagnating economy, as key commodity prices have risen globally: while incomes have not compensated for the those price increases. This is compounded by a steady decline in the value of the pound against other currencies.

It all makes nonsense of past and present governments' declarations that they plan to 'eliminate child poverty', because low-income households with children will figure prominently in the data on declining real incomes.
There is no precise definition of 'poverty': the basic assumption is that a household that is not receiving  60% of the median income is 'poor'. This formula causes the number of impoverished people to rise quickly when salaries are increasing rapidly, because increases in benefits lag behind salaries even if they are indexed to inflation. This is really just a statistical device.

Few children arrive in school these days without shoes, hungry and suffering from hypothermia; as many did in the early day of compulsory attendance in the nineteenth century. But there are many indicators of profound and serious  relative deprivation: and these are becoming more common. Parents are increasingly depriving themselves of everyday products and experiences to ensure that their children are adequately maintained; but in a society where standard of living expectations are driven by social media and advertorial promotions many children complain bitterly about not being able enjoy the lifestyle that seems to them to be a norm. Thus the pressure on parents and the tension within families increases, and this is predicted to affect millions more parents and children within the present decade.

Behind the statistics lies an intensification of pressure points within households that cannot be fixed by any of the measures that have failed over recent decades or by Ian Duncan Smith's proposals. The process of impoverishment will inexorably increase domestic friction and the incidence of depression  among increasing swathes of the population who will be powerless to change their situation. Physical manifestations such as chillblains and boils will serve as omens for more alarming evidence of undernourishment and sleep deprivation through coldness. Simple statistics may serve as the mileposts on the route; but social outcomes - leading to medical situations - will be the more potent proof that the apparently inexorable increase of poverty is advancing.

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