In the first part of this article on the poverty of life in Britain we looked at the experience of working people in the workplace. In this section our focus is on what is called the social wage. This is the social provision of goods and services that working people cannot, unlike the rich, provide for themselves individually. It includes such things as health services, education, pensions, support if you become unemployed, and local services such as swimming pools or meals on wheels for the elderly.
If you are wealthy you don’t need these things provided by society: you buy them yourself. You can have a swimming pool in the garden of your big house, a housekeeper if you are getting elderly, and, of course, the best private medical care. But such things are not available to working people; rather, we have historically fought to get these provided through the state.
The actual gains made in the social wage in Britain, particularly after 1945, reflected both the strength of the working class movement and the relative ability of capitalism to afford this increase. However, with a crisis of capital over the last three decades, a three-fold process has unravelled. Firstly, there has been a shift in the burden of taxation over the last twenty years, from the rich to placing it on the working class. Secondly, the delivery of the social wage is now being shifted from public ownership and becoming privatised. Because of this change, the privatised sector is making super profits, creaming off funds from the social wage that would otherwise be spent on better services. The third factor is a result of the first two, because since there is proportionally less available for the social wage, there are cuts and reductions in what we receive at the end of the day.
There is an increasing poverty of health under New Labour, which is reflected in the decline of services available to working people. Since Labour came to power in 1997, a large number of hospitals have been closed, with more planned over the next two years. Where hospitals have remained open, bed numbers have been reduced and departments such as maternity and A&E have been closed. In 2007, the Royal College of Nursing stated that 22,300 NHS posts had been lost in England in just 18 months. The quality of patient experience has also deteriorated, as hospitals are under-staffed, nurses overworked, patient ‘through-put’ is speeded up to meet targets, and hospital acquired infections are at an all time high.
These cut-backs in the quality of provision have occurred when there has actually been an increase in the money allocated to the overall NHS budget. The NHS budget was increased by 9% in 2001, and subsequently the annual budget for 1999-2004 had a planned rise from £49.3bn to £78.7bn. The critical point is that this money has not been spent on providing facilities for working people – quite the reverse. It has gone largely to boost the profits of the private medical, service and pharmaceutical companies. These companies are now, on a year-by-year basis, recording record profits. The pharmaceuticals have a average 18.9% profit-to-revenue ratio. It is by far, the highest of any industry in the United States (where many are based); and Britain’s own pharmaceutical industry profit level is second only to the US.
The reality is that money allocated to the NHS is being drained away. The end result is that the availability and quality of health care for working people has been reduced. Charges for health care are increasing, new drugs are not being provided ‘on the NHS’, and, at a local level, medical support services and local hospitals are closing.
A poverty of education is reflected in fewer and fewer working class children choosing to go on to university because of high student fees and lack of support grants. In 2006, when fees were first introduced, there were 15,000 less applications to university. In the following year, the government fixed the figures by including students applying for nursing and midwifery degrees, hence increasing the total applications. Incidentally, this pushed up the figure of those applying from working class backgrounds; but this manipulation hid the real situation, because nursing has always drawn large numbers of applicants from the working-class. At the chalkface, teachers in schools and lecturers at Further Education colleges have been reporting the true state of affairs: an increasing number of students from working class backgrounds are openly saying that, while they would like to go to university, they cannot afford it.
Those who do go to university, are straddled with huge debts as they eventually enter the world of work. Many of these students are increasingly studying at universities near their home towns, as it is cheaper to live with parents; the number of "home" students has risen from 18% to 56% over the last ten years. But this puts an increased burden on families as well as limiting choice for students. This contrasts sharply with the experience of well-off middle class students, who, with the backing of parental income, have a wider choice, as living away from home and paying rent is not a financial problem.
At this year’s Labour Party Spring Conference in February 2008, Gordon Brown, in a typical piece of empty rhetoric, stated: "We are the first generation to be able to say that there need be no limit on how far your talent can take you." He has clearly not understood the basic socialist premise that opportunity and equality are meaningless in a society of economic and material inequality. Merely having the formal ‘right’ to education is an empty phrase when poverty and exploitation is built into capitalism. Working class families in previous years thought that they were winning the battle for a decent education system, one with real equal access to all. This was the meaning of free education and support grants for students to live on while at university. Now the education system has been redesigned to favour those who can afford it.
The lesson we should all learn is that no reforms can be guaranteed while capitalism, a system built on inequality, remains.
Local Services and Pensioners
The poverty of life in Britain is also reflected in cuts in services provided by local authorities to individuals and the community, while at the same time council taxes are increasing at a rate higher than wage increases and pensions. Similar to the situation in the NHS, money from local authority budgets is being drained away into the profits of the private sector through compulsory directed privatisation measures.
In 2008, a report, "Your Money or Your Life" by the Leonard Cheshire Disability, highlighted evidence that the situation facing disabled people is one of increasing poverty and social isolation. Although local authorities spent over £14 billion on all social care services between 2006 and 2007, this was needed to support an estimated 1.75 million people, many who are elderly, as well as others coping with stress from work or physical disabilities. Yet, the disabled have been subjected to cuts in care – a direct result of the marketisation of services, where private firms cream off profits from the public sector.
Now local authorities are rationing our care services. With recent government announcements, disabled people are facing even harsher eligibility criteria, which will put pressure on hard-pressed families. The result, as support for the disabled is cut, is that an increasing number of family members will need to become full-time carers, thus pushing these families into a spiral of debt and poor health.
For the elderly, the situation does not look much better. In 2004 there were 11.1 million people of pensionable age in the UK, and this will rise to 15.3 million by 2031; within this group there will be a rise from 1.9% to 3.8% of those who will be over 85. Pensioners are one of the key groups of people with disabilities, yet they face a situation of declining social care. The Counsel and Care’s "National Survey of Local Authority Care Charging and Eligibility Criteria" from 2006 showed that social care provision has been cut for the elderly. Local authorities are simply applying higher charges and increasing the eligibility criteria. In some cases, the report found that older people have had to pay up to £315 per week towards their domiciliary care costs.
Added to these cuts has been the relative reduction in the state pension. A report by Aon Consulting indicated that the UK now has the worst state pension provision, compared to 25 other European countries. On average, the state pension is equal to just 17% of average earnings, compared to an average of 57% in Europe. A report by Age Concern indicated that 2.2 million pensioners are living in poverty. This level of hardship reveals itself in figures that saw 23,200 more deaths in England and Wales in the winter of 2005-2006 amongst people over the age of 65, compared to levels in the non-winter period. Hypothermia, as a result of pensioners worried that they will be unable to pay their heating bills, and declining levels of support are all contributing causes.
It becomes a sick joke when Gordon Brown speaks of 10 years of economic growth under New Labour. Yes, the economy did amass additional wealth as human productivity grew around the globe, because new technology enhanced what humanity could do: but working people have not seen this wealth. Instead, a greater proportion of the national product has gone to the rich and wealthy.
The quality of life for working people in Britain is poorer, in terms or our wages and in terms of the social provision of services. The big things, such as health and education, are being cut, but so also are the small things, which are also important – time with families and friends, time and facilities for leisure, and a reasonable working week. This is all possible with the technology available and the wealth we have created. What is needed are socialist policies, not the madness of the market, where the few live lives of opulence, while the many are faced with the poverty of life.
The Poverty of Life in Britain
By Ed Doveton, Monday, 19 May 2008