There have been important successes in our attempts to end poverty, says Paul Nicolson
The main point of Barry Knight’s book is that ‘our efforts to end poverty over the past 75 years have failed’. I disagree. There have been some significant successes. Along with many others, I was involved in campaigning against the poll tax because of its impact on the poorest people; that campaign was a success, and the poll tax was abolished.
In 1997 I founded the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust (Z2K) to work with and for the poorest debtors tangled in the benefit system. Z2K’s very first task was to raise £100,000 to commission the Family Budget Unit to research the minimum income needed by a single mother or a couple with two young children. We gave this research, Low Cost but Acceptable – A minimum income standard for the UK with a preface by John Veit-Wilson, to Unison and London Citizens. They used it to persuade then London mayor Ken Livingstone to launch the London Living Wage, which he did in 2004. Since then Citizens UK and the trades unions have successfully worked with employers to spread a real living wage. It is now linked to robust research done at Loughborough University funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation; it guides the Living Wage Foundation when it resets the level every year.Lobbying by children’s charities helped significantly to reduce child poverty from 1997 to 2010.
Despite these successes, rising rents and the chaotic UK housing market are reducing the capacity of those on low incomes to buy food, fuel and other necessities.
Taxpayers Against Poverty’s strapline reads ‘No citizen without an affordable home and an adequate income in work or unemployment’. Homes are not affordable because statutory minimum incomes are inadequate, as John Veit-Wilson points out, and the UK housing market is out of control. The consequences are debt, hunger, homelessness, ill health and shortened lives.
The debate is plagued by a government which promotes;
- a definition of affordable housing that is not affordable for the poorest citizens, because it is linked to market rents not average incomes, and
- a national living wage that is not a living wage, having no roots – unlike the real living wage – in the minimum price of food, fuel and other necessities
A major failure has not been spotted by Barry Knight. It is not only a failure of the poverty lobby; it is a failure of successive governments. In effect the 1979, 1997, 2010 and 2016 governments have allowed money to flow into a UK housing market in short supply from any national or international speculator, so forcing up rents and prices beyond the reach of more and more UK citizens. That creates dire poverty when housing benefit is cut, incomes are reducing in value or are low, stagnant or stopped because of a vicious benefit system, while any billionaire can grab UK land and watch the price go up.
“Rising rents and the chaotic UK housing market are reducing the capacity of those on low incomes to buy food, fuel and other necessities”
The poverty lobby, economists and politicians all lack a coherent narrative about UK land, which is now being grabbed without restraint as Parliament, civil service and the Church of England stand by. Some national and international solutions are to be found in Debt Death & Deadweight edited by Fred Harrison. The following is part of the history of a parish I served for 16 years.
‘The rich and powerful began their land grabbing after the Magna Carta. The land which once belonged to the King was common land on which the people of Britain survived. The enclosures by the barons took that land from them. The Church and State were not slow to catch on … Much of the land was once owned by the monks at St Albans Abbey. [When the] Bishop of Lincoln … enclosed 300 acres of common land on which 60 families depended for survival; it is recorded that they starved. Then in the 1980s the sale of council houses in the Chiltern villages to the tenants for £25,000 led to them being sold into the market for £250,000; now they sell on for £600,000 plus. The poorest tenants are being priced out of the Chiltern Hills.’
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – the more it changes, the more it’s the same thing.
Read Barry Knight’s new paper ‘Rethinking Poverty: Towards the Webb Legacy’.