Poverty is the biggest issue British society faces today. The United Kingdom takes pride in being a world leader with regards to our liberal society, our invaluable welfare state, and our business and technological advancements. Unfortunately there are those who choose not to take notice of inequalities in our society, gaps in our welfare services, and problems with our businesses. A fifth of the population, 14 million people, live below the poverty threshold, which is less than 60 per cent of the median UK household income and over a quarter of children in the UK live in poverty. There are those who claim that poverty is not an issue for the greater British society, they say that poverty is simply an issue for those who are in it.
However there is a greater issue surrounding the problem of poverty. Do we, as a society, deserve it?
Over the last month, there have been numerous news reports about helping the homeless, the importance of food banks and charities in ensuring people have a warm place to stay during the wet and cold winter period. Regrettably society appears to forget about these people at all other times of the year. We dismiss these issues as if they do not actually exist because they may not have a large impact on our lives. We choose to ignore these people in need and so does our government.
The Coalition government has made cuts in all areas of public life that affect almost everyone. The disabled and the poorest have been hit hard. The unemployed and the elderly have also suffered. Funding for vital services in education and health have been lost. The alternative Labour government were not successful in narrowing the wealth gap during their time in power. In 2008 the richest 0.1% received 4.3% of all income, the highest figure since the 1930’s, and three times as much as they received as a share of income in 1979. The gap between the bottom 10% and the top 10% has widened; the top 10% still receive around 40% of all personal income in the UK, whilst the remaining 90% only around 60%. The Occupy Movement is working to change this, but the people it affects, the 99%, you and I, still do not take heed and the majority do not care.
2012 has definitely been a year where the United Kingdom has united. The London Olympic and Paralympic Games sparked national and international pride. Our Olympians came from estates in East London and from the playing fields of Eton. When they wore the Union Flag and flew it after winning, the nation forgot who they were and where they came from. The nation forgot that they weren’t born in Britain or that they had lost limbs in Middle-Eastern wars. But there is a new message that the Conservative government is quietly expressing, particularly concerning the Paraylmpic Games. ‘If they can win a medal in a wheelchair, why can’t you go to work?’
Two weeks ago, journalist Laurie Penny responded to a letter from a disabled reader who was considering taking their own life for two main reasons; firstly because they were frightened about what will happen when the disability living allowance they rely on to live independently ends, secondly because they want to protest against the government’s assault on welfare. A third of all disabled adults live in low-income households, twice the rate of that for non-disabled adults. Campaigners for disability rights groups reported that an increasing number of disabled people think that suicide is the only way in which they can make a difference in their society. This should not be the case. While we celebrate our Paralympians, and rightly so, we forget how they got to the Games and we forget about the people who cannot get there.
The government has deserted people in poverty. They are known as ‘scroungers’, ‘chavs’, or the ‘underclass’. Yet more than half of all the children in low-income households have someone in their family doing paid work. They are not scroungers. There are people in our society who have been awarded MBE’s and OBE’s, who are friends of our politicians, who find ways in which to avoid contributing to our society. The media chooses to highlight cases of people who would rather live on benefits than go to work for less money. This is not the reality among people in poverty. They do not want to rely on state handouts in order to survive. But the public does not fight against these untruths or question their validity.
Recent revelations of ex-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her feelings concerning the Falkland Islands some 25 years ago have made headlines and top news bulletin stories. Alongside them, The Guardian newspaper published Margaret Thatcher’s plans on dismantling our beloved welfare state, in which members of our society fought in the Second World War to gain. The CPRS set out proposals to introduce education vouchers, end the state funding of higher education, freeze welfare benefits, implement an insurance-based health service, and compulsory charges for schooling alongside a "drastic reduction in resources going to the public sector". Due to the uproar in public and in parliament whenever new cuts are proposed, I am surprised that this story has not made headlines. I am surprised that the public have not held up Thatcher as a destroyer of the welfare state.
The poorest depend on the welfare state and it seems as though Margaret Thatcher and her government wanted to cut this supply and necessity. It was a belief of Thatcher’s that, as well as there being ‘no such thing as society’, ’there really is no primary poverty left in this country’. In her view, poverty is a ‘really hard fundamental character—personality defect’. Not only do I find this statement shocking, I find it appalling. The suggestion that there is no poverty in Britain, let alone that poverty is a ‘personality defect’, is absolutely out of touch with reality. It would seem that nothing has changed in 30 years and the ethos of the Conservative Party remains exclusive, as Owen Jones writes in his book ‘CHAVS’, ‘by giving just enough to just enough other people’.
In 1811, de Maistre said “toute nation a le gouvernement qu’elle mérite", every nation has the government that it deserves. The people of Britain voted to elect politicians that do not seem to care about people who live in poverty. We cannot therefore complain. If those in poverty did not want to live in poverty they would have voted for a party that would have helped them to escape it. As a society and a nation, we uphold and protect our right and our freedom of a democracy. In our case, the poor and the disabled must suffer and die for that right for democracy. When media corporations, including the BBC, do not tell the complete truth or do not report on the stories that matter, we do not complain. As a society we do not act to protect our society.
I feel that the ending of Laurie Penny’s letter to a disabled reader encapsulates a strong message to anyone that feels that they cannot make an impact in their society, particularly the disabled.
‘When society tells you that you are worth less because you are unwell, that’s society’s fault, not yours. They may be pursuing a doctrine of shame, but that doesn’t mean you have to feel ashamed. You have no reason whatsoever to feel ashamed. You are not a burden, and you are not a scrounger - you are just unwell.’
Poverty is a growing problem in society today. With so many cuts to welfare services, the situation does not look like it will improve any time soon. The Coalition cannot keep saying that ‘we are all in this together’ when it is evident that we are not. It is no good dismissing poverty as a personality disorder. If it was, how can we leave 14 million people, children, with a worsening illness? We must accept that poverty still deeply exists in first world Britain and begin to work to make that poverty history and take responsibility for the society of which we are part.
By Soila Apparicio