There are approximately 13.5 million people living in poverty in the UK today (that is equivalent to more than one in five of the UKs entire population) but bizarrely the subject of poverty has barely registered as an issue in the 2015 General Election. In one of the richest nations on Earth one of the most stubborn and intractable crises of our time is being overlooked by politicians from all of the UKs major political parties.
One of the most common misconceptions associated with people who are poor (particularly the young) is that they don’t deserve to be helped because they are lazy, feckless and don’t want to work. This attitude towards the poor is one of the most contagious falsehoods in modern society. Poverty is not a function of individual pathology or human agency (and never has been), it is in fact the exact opposite; it’s because the very structure of opportunities has collapsed in capitalist society that people fall to the bottom, not because they are weak but because the economic and political institutions of that society have failed .
When I reflect on the feedback from my own doctoral research examining the effects of poverty amongst young people growing up in North East England I get no sense that the poor situation of my respondents was due to anything like idleness or because they might be work-shy. The North East region has some of the highest levels of poverty in the UK. According to the North East Child Poverty Commission some neighbourhoods in the region have more than two thirds of children living in poverty and contrary to the popular myth most of these children will live in households where at least one parent will be working.
Of course, there are many reasons why people might find themselves living in poverty but unemployment, under-employment and low paid employment are amongst the major causes of poverty in 2015. In addition to the millions of people who are unemployed (including around one million young people) there are tens of thousands of employed people who are still not paid the National Minimum Wage and the UK economy also has a new hidden army of underemployed workers who are expanding rapidly. In the North East youth unemployment is a particular issue due almost entirely to the structural failure of the regional youth labour market. During an interview with one young man I asked him about his hopes for the future and what he wanted to achieve most of all, and his response to me, which was characteristic of so many of those who took part in the research, was fixed on one thing – finding work:
“To get a job, I need a job but no-one will help me, I’d do anything, I swear to God, anything, I just want a job man, I just want to be able to get a job, I’ve tried and tried.”
The costs and consequences of unemployment, poverty and inequality, which is now becoming the new normal for so many millions of people across the UK and Europe, are corrosive and cut across every aspect of social, economic and family life. For many of those who took part in my research the effects culminated in complex, messy lifestyles which were characterised by a challenging combination of deep financial hardship, social and economic discrimination, difficult home lives, a deep sense of regret and remorse, low self-worth and poor mental health. Against this kind of experience, is it any wonder why young people who grow up in contexts of poverty tend to live their whole lives in poverty? With all of this weight and messiness in their lives at such a young age is it any wonder why young people feel increasingly fatalistic about the future and might never find their way out? For most of them (like most of us) I couldn’t help but wonder whether their problems might disappear overnight for the sake of a secure job and some money.
It might just be worth mentioning something here about the simple idea of a basic citizen’s income such as that proposed by the Citizen’s Income Trust . We all know that money is the basic common denominator in our lives and the benchmark against which most of us will be measured by our fellow citizens. Money really does make the world go around and cash, whether we like it or not, is King. So, in the spirit of Occam’s razor then, wouldn’t it make more sense to make available a basic citizen’s income for every person who lives in the community based on an unconditional, universal and non-discriminatory payment to allow all people to live and participate in the societies to which they belong (as a condition of birth)?
 Wright-Mills, C. (1959) The Sociological Imagination: Chapter 1: The Promise, 9-33, Oxford University Press, New York. http://occupytampa.org/files/tristan/readlearn/[C._Wright_Mills]_The_Sociological_Imagination(BookZa.org).pdf