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Poverty is not inevitable Starving families won't settle for platitudes

Was Jesus a Tory? (Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images)

Was Jesus a Tory? (Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images)


September 7, 2022   6 mins

The energy companies are drowning in dollars, while a season of strikes continues to dismay much of the media. Cathy Newman of Channel 4 News talks about “taking on” the trade unions, as though they were a bunch of armed insurrectionists, while Kirsty Wark of Newsnight is so frantic to see an end to industrial action on the railways that she forgets to ask whether it might actually be a just cause. Complaining that striking workers inconvenience people is like protesting that the flu jab hurts. So it does, but that’s not the point.

Nothing in this respect has changed since the Victorian era, when the middle classes were equally panicked by stirrings from below. Nobody objects to the right to withdraw one’s labour; it’s just strikes that some people can’t stomach. The last thing one should do with this particular right is actually exercise it. If you do, you can be sure that the state will shackle you with even more repressive legislation. Strikes are a nuisance for the general public. Choosing between freezing and starving is also a nuisance for the general public, though not, presumably, for Newman and Wark.

There is talk again of hand-outs, which the Victorians doled out graciously to the deserving poor. Perhaps we should dispense with a new prime minister and ask Bill Gates to take over running the country. Some things, however, have changed since Victoria’s day. Back then, the poor were largely invisible. (I apologise for the quaintly archaic term “poor”; I mean of course those with limited disposable incomes). A lot of them lived in slums, where few of their social superiors dared to tread. They were a ghettoised species to be researched into or moralised about, an alien underworld visited largely by philanthropists and sociologists.

Middle-class people ventured into their midst from time to time to note their physiognomic peculiarities or beg them to be washed in the blood of the Lamb. They were also largely illiterate, which shut them out of the public sphere even more decisively. Nowadays, the poor may live next door, or even closer than that, while a good many of the ghettos are for the rich. The low-paid have also acquired a voice of their own, rather than having conscience-stricken novelists speak out on their behalf. It’s a long way from Charles Dickens to Mick Lynch. The deprived used to be a problem — a distinctive group like the disabled, in need of special measures. But what if the problem is society itself?

Some Victorians saw poverty as a transient state. A poor person was someone en route to becoming a rich person, rather as an ape was en route to becoming a human being. For the state to intervene in the laws of the marketplace would only derail this desirable evolution. Some of these apologists for progress and civilisation would have been aghast at the idea that there would still be widespread hunger almost 200 years on. Much the same view was taken of Empire. Colonial peoples were stuck at an evolutionary point which we ourselves had left behind some centuries ago, and the more enlightened of our forebears felt the need to bring these savages up to date by invading their territories, hi-jacking their labour-power and plundering their resources. They did not pause to reflect that a major reason why the colonies were in a dire state was because they themselves existed, rather as a major reason for the existence of the poor is the activity of the rich.

Others in Victorian Britain saw poverty as a natural condition, and thus as unchangeable. This, however, doesn’t follow: not all natural conditions are unchangeable, as the planet knows to its cost. It’s a lot easier to move a mountain than to demolish patriarchy. There are, however, certain natural phenomena which never vary, like the need for nourishment or the nastiness of the US Republican party, and destitution could easily be added to the list. Besides, an authority as unimpeachable as the Son of God had declared that the poor are always with us. If Jesus was a Tory, who were we to say otherwise?

After a while, however, poverty became a scandal. It showed no signs of disappearing, but ideologically speaking it grew less acceptable. This was partly because of the growth of humanitarianism, and partly because too stark a division between rich and poor was politically destabilising. The case that having an empty stomach is as natural as having typhoid thus crumbled away. Fewer people believed that capitalism, too, is just human nature, though this view still has a number of subscribers. It was growing harder to maintain that Neolithic Man could find his fulfilment only by running a corner shop, or that tribal peoples like the Nuer and the Dinka are secretly hankering to be stockbrokers. Aristotle thought that trade simply for the sake of accumulating wealth was unnatural. For some feudal ideologues, capitalism flouted traditional values and would never catch on. Shakespeare was well aware of the New Men, as the Elizabethans called them, and feared the devastation they were wreaking.

So hardship had to be accounted for in non-natural terms, and it was thus that the evolutionary theory became the trickle-down theory. In the end, the wealthy would come to the rescue of the needy. It is remarkable how resistant to reality this pious faith has proved. Karl Marx was derided for claiming that the rift between the well-off and the hard-up would widen as capitalism developed, but he has proved prophetic. It is the rich who are getting richer, not the poor. If it is true that capitalism can lift some people out of deprivation, it is also true that it can plunge others into it, sometimes at the same time.

Even so, the myth persists that granting tax breaks to billionaires is the quickest route to all-round affluence. How many times must this theory fail in practice before it is finally discredited? Imagine someone who believes that the killing of African Americans by police officers is simply a series of tragic accidents. It says nothing significant about the structure of American society. The more African Americans are murdered, the more stubbornly this individual sticks to his view.

If he isn’t entirely dim-witted, one can only account for this by appealing to ideology. There must be some reason why this man can’t afford to acknowledge the existence of systematic racism. To do so might seriously jeopardise his own interests. He might be forced to look at the world in a way that makes it hard to carry on living as he does. The same goes for the Kentucky ex-coalminer standing up to his waist in flood water who, when asked whether climate change may have played a part in destroying his home, hesitated for several seconds before grudgingly replying: “It’s possible.”

It isn’t in the interests of the current economic system to acknowledge that it breeds inequality in the same way that sugar is sweet. This is why some look forward to the time when the low-paid will catch up with Elon Musk, or at least with Gary Lineker. This will certainly come about, but only in the kingdom of heaven, and people surviving on sandwiches because they daren’t turn on the cooker are reluctant to wait that long.

The beauty of the American Dream is that it accepts the reality of poverty, but in an upbeat kind of way. The badly off won’t get to live in Martha’s Vineyard, but individuals here and there will bootstrap themselves to success. There is a ladder leading to the top, but like all ladders it is wide enough to hold only one at a time. Society is one enormous lottery, and what keeps you from chaining yourself to the nearest police officer is the prospect that your number might always come up. Meanwhile, as you visit your local food bank, it is consoling to think that others are paying a fortune for tickets to the moon. The hearts of the unemployed swell with patriotic pride at the thought of the urchin from the Bronx or Detroit who grew up to be a millionaire and throw them out of their jobs.

Every civilisation has its blind spots — the unsayable or inconceivable, the invisible framework which marks the limits of permissible thought. In Britain today, this is the property system. This situation, too, hasn’t changed since Victorian times. In the 1840s, a famine broke out at the heart of the British Empire, the greatest social catastrophe of 19th-century Europe. One million Irish people died, while millions of others emigrated. One reason they did so was because the British government wouldn’t permit any tampering with the laws of the capitalist economy. Few people today believe that this set-up is divinely ordained, but a lot of them behave as though it is. Watch Kirsty Wark’s blank, uncomprehending visage when someone on the show is rash enough to mention socialism.

Before we squabble about restoring a tax cut here or help for the most vulnerable there, we should step back and contemplate for a moment the sheer surreal lunacy of the situation. In a world in which computers are so advanced that they may be feeling lonesome, and for all we know are secretly dating each another, people are going to die because they are deprived of goods to which they have an absolute right. Perhaps it will soothe the grief and fury of their families to point out that there is no alternative — that, in the midst of the greatest affluence and technological wizardry history has ever witnessed, the wit of humanity is unable to conceive of a different way of doing things. I wouldn’t like to be the politician who tries to tell them.


Terry Eagleton is a critic, literary theorist, and UnHerd columnist.


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Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
1 year ago

Tackling Poverty has been made that much more difficult because the very agencies that exist to address the problem have cynically skewed the public’s perception of it.
With rising inflation, a cost-of-living crisis and a looming recession there will likely be many more people in this country facing actual poverty – having to make choices like whether to “Heat or Eat”. In the UK, in the C21st, that is shameful. But the ability to get help to those in real need has been hampered by the very people who claim to be champions of the poorest.
There are few things the Guardian enjoys more than rolling out another article decrying some variety of “poverty” and bashing the Govt for not doing more to combat it.
To maintain the daily level of ire and angst, the Guardian, the BBC and the Labour Party favour using the “Relative Poverty” measure. Relative poverty is a wonderful metric if all you are looking for is a stat to bolster an emotive polemic. It offers a convenient stick with which to beat the Govt. But as a way to ACTUALLY describe, understand or tackle poverty it is practically useless.
In 2020 the BBC claimed that here in the UK we had a 40% child poverty rate. ….. let that sink in …… 40% of all children!! Really? Do they expect anyone to buy that figure – if they just stopped to think about it for an instant?
Relative Poverty classes all those who live on 60% of the median income or less as automatically living in poverty.
Squawking about 40% rates of poverty, which anyone of sense can see is ludicrous, means the argument simply becomes a political blame-game shouting match and those people who genuinely need the help most are drowned out by the noise.
If we had a defined “actual poverty” level, agreed upon by all interested parties, from politicians through charities and the various agencies involved in trying to improve the situation, then we could perhaps implement measures to ensure no one fell below that level without receiving some state-funded help of one kind or another.
Let me quickly demonstrate what a truly pointless metric “Relative Poverty” is:
Would you like to know when, in recent years, we saw the biggest fall in families classed as living in relative poverty 
.?
It was for the two years after the financial crash.
Why? Were poorer families better off? It would seem wildly unlikely given the financial squeeze affecting the whole country at that time.
No, they were no better off – indeed most would have been materially quite a lot worse off – but they were “lifted out” of relative poverty simply because the median income fell.
So, what does that tell you about a poorer family’s level of poverty over that “golden period”?
Absolutely nothing. – It will be interesting to watch Labour shift on the Relative Poverty argument when the Covid recession starts to bite, because as Median income falls so will the Poverty stats, and they can’t have that, can they?
It isn’t just the Labour party and their media outlets (the Guardian and its on-air wing, the BBC), Charities also collude in this – for fairly obvious reasons. A charity that relies on donations has a vested interest in presenting the statistics that best suit their agenda. That isn’t cynical, necessarily, but it is how charities operate, they are multi-million pound businesses that rely on people giving money to alleviate whatever problem the charity exists to tackle.
If the charity downplays the problems then donations dip, if they can make the strongest case for the problem – by using statistics that sound appalling – then donations rise. It’s a pretty simple equation.
As soon as you question their assertion that 40% of UK children live in poverty, you are branded an uncaring, heartless beast. But just open your eyes, go on a bus, walk into a school, even in a really deprived area, ….. Do you really think over a third of the children there are in poverty? Take it school by school, around the country and there would be many schools where not a single child would be classed as living in anything like objective poverty, so to reach the numbers being flung about there would have to be schools where every single child was living the life of a Dickensian street urchin. It’s delusional.
There are myriad ways to use statistics but when you take them out of context they become meaningless. When you try and employ such a meaningless stat to bolster a position as a debating point then you undermine your whole argument.
I am, in relative terms, in grinding poverty next to Richard Branson. But I am enjoying wealth beyond the dreams of avarice relative to a slum child in Calcutta. What do either of those statements tell you about my wealth? Relatively – nothing.
If I told you that there were just over 6500 princes in Saudi Arabia and that research has shown that almost 1400 were living in relative poverty would you weep for them? No? Why not? Relative to their wealthier cousins they are poor. Those numbers are accurate but, regardless, you wouldn’t be rubbishing the research to suggest that by any sensible standard it would be silly to describe these Saudi princes as living in poverty.
There is no question that more should be done to help those (thankfully, few) children in this country facing actual poverty, who go to bed hungry. But the liberal left’s ongoing and endless narrative, that a Tory Govt, out of sheer greed and malice, wants to grind us into the dirt, requires them to take up positions and push statistics that, rather than helping, actually exacerbate the problem.
When you overstate the “poverty” case (as they routinely do) it makes it easy to dismiss – and that helps no one.

Last edited 1 year ago by Paddy Taylor
Gordon Black
Gordon Black
1 year ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

Yes, using a fixed percentage to define ‘poverty’, means that regardless of any changes in incomes, we will forever have that percentage of people living in ‘poverty’.

Gordon Arta
Gordon Arta
1 year ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

As Gordon Black notes, with a fixed percentage, we’ll always have some in poverty. This is entirely deliberate. The poverty industry recognised that any definition of absolute poverty could result in people being lifted out of it. In other words, what they had to sell had a sell-by date, and if they passed it they’d be out of business. Relative poverty replaces it with a rolling never to be reached target, so the money keeps rolling in.

Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
1 year ago
Reply to  Gordon Arta

Quite. It also allows Politicians to cast themselves as a saviour – not by doing anything constructive, but by re-assessing the figures.
Gordon Brown was the past-master at this. He is forever popping up in the Guardian to remind everyone what a deep-thinking and compassionate man he is, and to moan about the cynicism of Tory policy on welfare. Of course, Guardian readers just lap it up, as it makes them feel superior.
He never misses an opportunity to remind people how he had “lifted 700 000 children out of poverty”, whilst uncaring Tories wanted to impoverish them out of sheer cruelty or some such twaddle. But actually interrogate the figures and you’ll see that Brown’s record on child poverty (whilst in 11 & 10 Downing St) is probably one of his most cynical policies – and that is a crowded and hotly-contested field.
By using the “Relative poverty” metric, Brown, in a WHOLLY CYNICAL move to bolster the Govt’s record, targeted those households that fell just below the “60% of Median Income” – giving them tax credits that were enough – just enough – to put them above the line, and thus be able to grandly claim he’d “lifted 700 000 children out of poverty” 

. by giving in many cases as little as an additional ÂŁ8 a week to that household.
A household with 4 children getting an extra tenner or less a week made NO appreciable difference to those children’s lives yet by doing that Mr Brown could make his bold claims about alleviating poverty and Labour could trumpet their success. It diverted taxpayer’s money away from those at the very bottom of the ladder – whose plight was largely ignored because no amount of extra funding was likely to shift them up Gordon Brown’s spreadsheet-appreciation of poverty.
The fact that Gordon still believes his reputation of being the ‘principled one’ in the Blair/Brown axis perhaps demonstrates just how unprincipled the other half of the double act was. But then anyone who believes they can magically conjure “an end to boom-and-bust”, can probably convince themselves of anything.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 year ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

I was going to comment that this author’s predictable, stubborn defense of Marx and his hideous, death-delivering, utterly insane “philosophy” is akin to Walter Duranty’s lifelong refusal to admit Stalin’s homicide, but the comment section seems not to be functioning unless one replies to another. That said, Mr. Taylor, applause for you lucid rebuttal.

Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
1 year ago

Good to see an article on this topic. Might have been better if a litlte less partisan though. The “nastiness of the US Republican party” is a phenomena that “never varies”? They were once fighting for freedom against the slavery supporting Dems. And this is what Nixon had to say about hunger: “That hunger and malnutrition should persist in a land such as ours is embarrassing and intolerable…. More is at stake here than the health and well-being of 16 million American citizens…. Something very like the honor of American democracy is at issue.”

polidori redux
polidori redux
1 year ago

My wife turned on Radio 4 this morning. She was hoping for some news I suppose. The BBC commentariat are launching a pre-emptive strike against Truss.Her first action should be to abolish the licence fee. By all means listen to this drivel, but pay for it yourself.

odd taff
odd taff
1 year ago

What a pointless article. The author obviously doesn’t like the status quo but put forwards no solutions. It’s a long and tedious winge.

polidori redux
polidori redux
1 year ago

Rest assured Terry that i have no more time for Liz Truss than I do for you. I tried – I got half way though your piece before moving on.

Gary Taylor
Gary Taylor
1 year ago

Poverty is not inevitable, but it is the default across the world for all of history.
You need to explain wealth not poverty.

AC Harper
AC Harper
1 year ago

The concept of ‘trickle down’ wealth is widely derided by Left wing commentators. And yet… since the fifties the housing stock is widely improved, many more people have central heating or double glazing, many more people have personal transportation, almost everyone carries a cell phone. Something is trickling down, even if it not cash money.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
1 year ago
Reply to  AC Harper

The concept of “trickle-down” is an almost exclusively lefty meme.
As if trickling down taxation-revenues from government , after being filtered through innumerable bureaucrats’ kidneys, is somehow different or better.

Aaron James
Aaron James
1 year ago

I see why this amazing piece came out in the dead of night. It begins its hyperbolic, propagandistic, foolishness in the first paragraph.

”Complaining that striking workers inconvenience people is like protesting that the flu jab hurts. So it does, but that’s not the point.”

as an antivaxer I believe the vax kills and maims for life and causes reproductive harm, and much more – but let that one go because it is mere parroting of the agenda, vax wise. And striking workers do more harm than inconvenience people, but let that one go too. But then just scanning further brings such craziness it would make Marx blush; a couple examples:….

‘Middle-class people ventured into their midst from time to time to note their physiognomic peculiarities or beg them to be washed in the blood of the Lamb. (into the slums)

”like the need for nourishment or the nastiness of the US Republican party”

”Imagine someone who believes that the killing of African Americans by police officers is simply a series of tragic accidents. It says nothing significant about the structure of American society. The more African Americans are murdered, the more stubbornly this individual sticks to his view.”

wow Unherd, you are covering all bases by hiring this guy….

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
1 year ago
Reply to  Aaron James

“…wow Unherd, you are covering all bases by hiring this guy…”

Well it was either the author or David Icke, and David had an appointment with the lizards.

R Wright
R Wright
1 year ago
Reply to  Aaron James

Yes I guffawed at the police shooting myth being restated. The number of unarmed black people shot by police in 2019 was 14, or 0.2% of the total. An epidemic it is not.

Max Price
Max Price
1 year ago

One of the main problems as I see it is that instead of putting their efforts into regulating capitalism to make it more equitable Lefties want to destroy the whole system and Western civilisation to boot.

polidori redux
polidori redux
1 year ago
Reply to  Max Price

I don’t regard such people as being “left”. They are middle class liberals.Increasingly I find them cliche ridden and out of touch with the concerns of working class people. In a word – obsolete.

Noel Farrelly
Noel Farrelly
1 year ago

Blinded by ideology and economically illiterate, this article is hilarious.

Peter B
Peter B
1 year ago

I do not wish to sounds callous and uncaring and there are certainly many poor people in the UK I would like to see helped more … however …
I’ve been travelling to rural Romania most years for over 20 years. Every time I’ve heard about “record poverty” in the UK, I’ve compared that to what I saw in Romani and reminded myself that many Romania villages even 10 years ago had no mains water, inside toilets or sewerage and water had to be hand drawn from communal wells.
And I once travelled to Tanzania and saw something that looked far more like genuine poverty.
So I have two questions for Mr Eagleton:
1) Why are we not focusing on places with far more acute poverty and needs than the UK ?
2) Can he explain how and why things have dramatically improved in this Romanian village over the past 10 years (though by UK standards this would still doubtless rank as “poverty”) ?
Once he’s answered question 2), perhaps he could think about what can be learned and how we might improve things in the UK.

R Wright
R Wright
1 year ago

The problem is that the same people whining about how austerity was ‘literally genocide’ in 2015 are the same usual suspects whining now. With the economic collapse coming it is actual victims that we should be listening to, not champagne socialists like the author of this article.

John Pade
John Pade
1 year ago

Poverty’s goal posts are always being moved. In Western countries, people who have indoor plumbing, heated (and even air conditioned) dwellings, food, medicine, cellular phones, and leisure time can be considered poor. In America, the biggest health problem of poor people is obesity.

Poverty appears to have multiple causes. At the bottom is stupidity. Poor people are not as smart as rich or middle class ones. Income is closely related to intelligence. Intelligence is to some extent genetic. This makes it hard to blame poor people for their poverty because it’s not their fault in a Shakespearean sense. It’s not anyone else’s fault either.

Socialist economies are fairer because they make lack common. Real lack, as in starvation. They have not produced anything else. Sweden, Denmark, etc. are not as socialist as America so no “Well, what I mean by socialism is…”. Socialism is Cuba, North Korea, and a few floundering African kleptocracies. If you don’t believe it just ask them.

jane baker
jane baker
1 year ago
Reply to  John Pade

From my reading of autobiographies,features in newspapers etc I’ve seen that the creative phenomenon of the 1960s,the good side of it,came out of that 1944 education act. It got practically everyone who had a brain a better education. It produced The Beatles. Four smart lads who probably otherwise would have been dockers,or clerks,or bus drivers,or something like that,all good useful jobs but not ones that bring you international fame and fortune.
In biographies galore I read how,both my parents passed the exam to go to grammar school but their families couldn’t afford it so they started work at t’mill instead. So this shows that pre WW2 Britain had a highly intelligent work force doing “humble” jobs but in their private life engaging in all sorts of cultural activity from local history,drama,operatics,art to garden shows,WEA all sorts. Being poor then didn’t mean being addicted to substances and stupid. So my personal theory is that after WW2 everyone who could rise,did,so by the “Tyranny of Merit” (good book by Michael Sandel) the ones left at the bottom now,excepting recent migrants,the indigenous poor are the stupid ones,the ones whose grandparents and parents lacked the capacity to rise,thus yes,smart people marry other smart people,it shouldn’t be surprising that most intelligent people are rich or vice versa. I have to include myself among the stupid ones due to certain circumstances and life influences but I’m in a good observation position and I can see how many of my “working class” peers have got the nice house,the place in Spain,go to the football regularly (which is NOT cheap),they are smart people while others are the archetypal lie on the sofa all day with a can.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
1 year ago

some of this is a bit stupid and patronizing. With a few flashes of interest here and there. But eagleton is a slightly silly man

Roddy Campbell
Roddy Campbell
1 year ago

“Deprived of goods to which they have an absolute right”

Says who? I’m not disagreeing that humans should look after each other, nor that it is iniquitous that some people have run out of things to spend their money on while others haven’t enough to buy food and stay warm.

But neither of those situations suggests an “absolute right “. Who decrees it absolute? On what authority?

Gordon Arta
Gordon Arta
1 year ago

‘Poverty is not inevitable’. Quite right Terry. A bit more parental and individual responsibility, stop smoking, binge drinking, and gambling, and don’t indulge in drugs and criminality, and, Hey Presto, poverty is pretty well eradicated. OK, so there’s still a relative lack of affluence for many, but they now have far more disposable income, their health has improved, there’s less pressure on housing, social services, the police, and the NHS, so less need for taxation. Win win all round, I’d say. Fewer Guardian readers and left wing activists, though. Oh dear.

mark taha
mark taha
1 year ago

Capitalism creates wealth best – socialism helps distribute it.

jane baker
jane baker
1 year ago

Look,I know people who have twice,three times my modest income so OK they’re still “poor” by the official whatever they are guidelines,but any tv producer looking for bona fide “poor people” would pick them to put on screen,not me. I’m the one who goes to the theatre,who travels,who…well,lots of things,for instance,gardens. They don’t do any of that. I manage my money,they don’t. OK that makes me slightly creepy and also I only “manage” a small amount of moolah. I don’t go get a second,third,fourth job to make more. So I’m not that smart. What I’m saying is,poverty is a state of mind. Some people are born with it. Our education system is skewed towards inculcating into us the idea that we must have stuff,that’s what your education is for,so you can end up with a great job and earn good money so you can acquire all that stuff that means you are high status. So if you don’t have money and stuff you’re low status. I know that poverty messes with your brain,you have to have immense control not to go for that instant gratification sugar rush
and most “poor people” don’t have that level of control and if you do,well actually you’re a bit creepy. Strange.

Neil Anthony
Neil Anthony
1 year ago

When the opinionator said “the nastiness of the US Republican party, ” feelings of pity arose. Another mind adapting as best it could as any physically disabled creature would. Destined to ponder the greatest era of Mankind … with a communal limp. Sad.

Neil Anthony
Neil Anthony
1 year ago

When the opinionator said “the nastiness of the US Republican party, ” feelings of pity arose. Another mind adapting as best it could as any physically disabled creature would. Destined to ponder the greatest era of Mankind … with a communal limp. Sad.