The Festive Season featured frequently in Charles Dickens novels, from Christmas at Dingley Dell in Pickwick Papers to Pip’s Christmas Day encounter with Magwitch at the beginning of Great Expectations and of course the classic, A Christmas Carol.
Dickens conceived A Christmas Carol in October 1843 in response to a government report he had read earlier that year describing the conditions of women and children employed in mines and factories. He was a great campaigner for the rights of the poor, but in this instance felt that the best way to bring attention to the horror would be to write a story. He was so driven by the injustices he had seen and read about that he devised and wrote the story in six weeks, ensuring it was published in time for Christmas 1843.
Whilst watching the BBC’s miniseries this Christmas, I was struck by how little our society has changed. In the last 176 years, our standard of living has risen enormously. We have much better health, nutrition and access to an array of gadgets to make our lives easier and more comfortable. However we still have a very unequal society with the 6 richest people in our country controlling as much wealth as the poorest 13 million.
Poverty is defined as a household living on less than 60% of the UK’s median income. In 2019 the median income was £29,400, which would mean that a household bringing in anything less than £17,640 is living in poverty. Today, an estimated 14.3 million people (22% of our population) live in poverty in the UK. Even more concerning is that 58% of this 14.3 million live in households with at least one member of the family working.
A family bringing in £17,640 a year would have £1470 per month to live on. Looking at rents in Cornwall for a 2 bedroomed property, that would cost in the region of £650 person, with council tax, electricity, gas, water and other essentials coming it at perhaps around £300 per month leaving £520 for food, clothing and other essentials. £130 per week for perhaps a family of 4 – even thrifty shoppers would struggle to feed and clothe themselves for this and this doesn’t even take into consideration any travel needed to get to work, school or to shops.
In Cornwall, the median salary is £20,000, so there are many people earning far less than the £17,640 with outgoings not significantly different from people in more wealthy areas, and in some instances larger.
This vision of 21st Century poverty has haunted me somewhat in recent months and I have had some heated discussions on the subject. Poverty is relative to the times we live in. Globally, levels of poverty have fallen dramatically in the last 50 years, but we still haven’t eradicated it.
What constitutes poverty?
Poverty experienced by people in Charles Dickens time was distinct from that faced by those at the beginning of the industrial age. Those in poverty today may have a car and a smartphone – surely these are hardly signs that someone is struggling financially?
I would argue that a smartphone today is an essential, not a luxury. Without a phone, those looking for work have no means of finding out about work or contacting employers. The Government is moving the process of applying for welfare benefits to being online only, so without access to a smartphone or pc, then individuals struggle to make and maintain claims.
In the same way, in some areas of the country, in particular more rural areas like Cornwall, a car is a necessity rather than a luxury. Public transport can be patchy and very expensive, putting out of the range of many low paid workers. Where it is available, it can take several hours to do quite short journeys and may not start until too late to ensure that a person can get to work on time.
Who is living in poverty?
Those living in poverty are often stigmatised in society as being feckless, lazy and workshy. The statistic of 58% of people in poverty living in a household where at least one person is working would seem to deny this.
I overheard a comment recently indicating that if someone can’t manage on their earnings, they should get a better job. What a great solution and how simple, but yet how unattainable for many. They may not have the necessary skills or qualifications; their circumstances may prevent them from getting other employment (unable to travel to other workplaces; caring duties or health issues preclude longer or changed hours of work). And if they do move to better paid work, who will fill their low wage work?
Those in poverty also include many thousands who undertake unpaid caring duties for family – if they don’t fulfill this role then it’s likely the state would be picking up a far higher social services bill.
What’s to be done?
So, where have my reflections on poverty led me this New Year’s Day?
- Poverty is relative – whilst the impact is the same now as it was in Dickens’ day, what constitutes poverty is different. Access to a smartphone or car can today be classed as essential as their absence makes participating in life and work very difficult
- We need to ensure that everyone receives fair pay for their work and is properly supported in their work. Zero hours contracts may be appropriate for some people, but for anyone wanting secure employment and steady income, these are not the answer and suit the needs of employers more than employees.
- We need to ensure that where people are playing other roles in our community (carers, supporting their community) their income potential through employment or welfare benefits recognises this
- We need a fairer society where 6 rich people do not control the same amount of wealth as 13 million poor people. I am not suggesting everyone has equal income – mankind is competitive and there will always be some people who are more ambitious, harder working and more successful but perhaps there is a limit beyond which the very wealthy have to use their wealth for the betterment of society just like those Victorian philanthropists!
I hope that for the next decade, we can work towards a fairer society, with more understanding of each other’s role in the wider community. I hope that the recent unrest, not just in our country, but worldwide will bring forward more humanity.
Happy New Year.