Destitution is a term that feels antiquated: the words “the poor and destitute”, go together like a horse and carriage, conjuring the exploited, desperate masses of Victorian England. It’s a condition that was addressed, but barely relieved, by the grim charity of the workhouse and the orphanage. For as a recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reminds us, destitution is still very much with us.
In 2017, more than 1.5 million people in the UK were ‘in destitution’ (lacking two or more of the following six essentials: shelter, food, heating, lighting, appropriate clothing and footwear, basic toiletries such as toothpaste or soap). The figure included 365,000 children.
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The causes of destitution, it appears from the report, divide into the long-term – high costs of housing, and pressure caused by poor health or disability – and those that trigger an immediate crisis: low benefit levels, delays in receiving benefits, and “harsh and uncoordinated” debt recovery practices.
Long-term and short-term factors interact, of course: ongoing financial pressures mean that those who are struggling simply to make ends meet will be unable to build up even a small financial buffer against adversity. Then something unexpected but inevitable happens – such as a benefit freeze or an unavoidable extra demand – whereupon they slip into deep hardship. They are no longer just “getting by”, but sinking.
Some politicians, to their great credit, have been trying to highlight this state of affairs for a number of years. Frank Field, the Labour MP for Birkenhead, has repeatedly warned of the unmanageable levels of hardship that he has seen first-hand in his constituency. During a debate in the Commons in December last year he described having to persuade a constituent not to take his own life – such were the man’s levels of desperation – and also the circumstances of a family that was able one year to donate toys to the local Christmas project “but this year, are so reduced in circumstances that their little boy cries with hunger”.
His description reduced the Conservative MP Heidi Allen to tears. One of the factors that has worsened hardship, according to Mr Field, is the manner in which Universal Credit has been rolled out: “It is an obstacle course of unreliable computer systems, arcane rules, massive delays and maladministration.”
The wider background to the individual disasters such as Mr Field describes, is a general rise in “precariousness” among workers. A survey by the Royal Society of Arts, published last January, found that economic insecurity has become the “new normal” in the UK. Of more than 2,000 workers surveyed, 40% described their finances as permanently precarious, and 30% said that they were not managing to get by.
Employment is high, but its nature has changed radically: employment per se is not the reliable indicator of financial security that it might have been even in the recent past. Wages have fallen in real terms, and there has been a significant rise in poverty among people with jobs. In late 2016 around 15% of households using Trussell Trust foodbanks were in work.
The ‘gig economy’ – led by firms such as Amazon, Uber and Deliveroo – often appears to deliver flexibility in one direction only, that which is advantageous to employers. Numerous workers now find themselves in a punitive limbo-land between ‘self-employed’ and ’employee’. Since they are officially self-employed, they are not entitled to holiday pay, pension or sick pay. Yet the companies, workers say, frequently lay down unrealistic targets and edicts akin to that of an unreasonably demanding employer (the GMB has recently launched legal action on behalf of three delivery firms used by Amazon, on the basis that the companies wrongly classed workers as self-employed).
Numerous testimonies – including those from food bank and church workers, teachers in deprived areas and union organisers – strongly indicate that everyday life has become a great deal more difficult and less secure for workers at the bottom end of our society. Their children are growing up in an atmosphere dogged by financial panic and the prospect of going without – a situation often dependent, not on any lack of industry on the part of their parents, but on the rigged economic structure around them.
One might have thought that such unfairness would keenly invigorate middle-class consciences, particularly among the young – and yet in many instances student activists, for example, seem much more gripped by perceived cultural outrages than the more direct injustices of the housing and employment market.
It is, of course, quite right to demand that individuals be treated with respect, regardless of gender, ethnicity or sexuality, and also that society as a whole strives to promote equality of opportunity. But ‘identity politics’ – with its penchant for offence-taking and detecting microaggressions – is often taking those principles to new and ludicrous extremes. Indeed, part of the inherent allure of much ‘identity politics’ is that it permits those who are economically privileged to nonetheless perceive themselves as victimised, and thereby gain social status.
A new book, The Rise of Victimhood Culture, by the US sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, observes that the most prominent citadels of ‘victim culture’ – as defined by such behaviour as seeking to ban speakers, demand ‘safe spaces’ or heavily police perceived microaggressions – are elite US university campuses where the students’ median family income is often many times above that of the average US family.
The authors’ fear for the future is that US society will come to bristle with aggressive grievance, as poorer white men who are manifestly excluded from this ‘victim narrative’ turn to their own brand of politicised victimhood, a backlash with unpredictable consequences: in some sense this was already a contributory factor to the rise of Trump in the US.
Yet poverty, as we know, includes every variation in ethnicity, gender and sexuality, and addressing economic inequality helps all disadvantaged groups. There can be few things more destructive to the soul than being unable to provide your child with a decent breakfast or evening meal; or working two jobs yet still being unable to meet the bills.
The incremental daily humiliations experienced by the precarious poor are the most pressing injustice in our society. Perhaps if the most politically vocal addressed themselves passionately to conditions of employment, housing and the situation of those on low incomes – as the committed foot-soldiers of the Left once did – we might really see not only a fairer but more unified Britain. I have the feeling, however, that it might not make for half such an exciting time on campuses and social media.