Steve Jones reviews Breadline Britain, a new book full of startling figures, which reveal the real standard of living faced by millions in the UK as a result of the Tory government, their austerity programme, and the failed capitalist system that they defend.
“Poverty in Britain is at crisis levels. Food bank queues, poor housing and insecure jobs are on the rise, leaving increasing numbers of people with their most basic needs unmet…”
These words could easily have come out from the pages of a whole number of articles to have been published by Socialist Appeal over the last few years. In fact, it comes from the advertising blurb of a major new study into the state of poverty in the UK today, Breadline Britain (Oneworld, 2015.)
This book follows on from two earlier such studies, one in 1983 and one in 1990, together with the Poverty and Social Exclusion study of 1999. As such it contains page after page of what is probably the most detailed and forensic data on poverty to be made available to the public.
It starts with the most startling fact of all – that, as at 2012, three out of every ten people in Britain are now stuck below the minimum living standard, i.e. trapped in poverty. This represents 20 million people, a doubling of the numbers and proportion of the British population in just three decades. Whereas the rich have got richer during the last period, the reverse has happened to the rest of us. After the Second World War, the economists talked of the “great levelling” as conditions for workers improved; now they talk of the “great widening.”
What does this mean in reality? The statistics for children provide the clearest picture. According to the report:
- One-in-four children do not get an annual holiday away from home.
- One-in-five kids live in a home which is cold or damp.
- One-in-ten children lack an essential clothing item.
- One-in-twenty households cannot afford to feed their kids adequately.
Even more graphic are the quotes from ordinary people, which start each chapter in the book and which give a human face to the mass of statistics and data to be reproduced in the book. As one low paid worker puts it at the start of Chapter Six: “I never thought I’d be living in this situation. I thought I would have my own home. In this day and age you’d never think that people would be living this way. You may not see it on the outside, but within the heart it’s very, very shocking.”
Each section of the book deals with a different aspect of poverty – low pay, housing, benefits, etc. – and as such provides enough material for several articles, certainly more than can be detailed here.
However, two things stick out. Firstly, the rise in severe deprivation whereby people are increasingly going without food, a situation that used to just be talked about in relation to the so-called third world. As the report explains:
“In 1983, thirteen percent had missed out on meals at times during the year because of lack of funds. By 2012, twenty-eight percent skimped ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’ on food for themselves, with nearly eight percent doing so ‘often’. People only end up skimping like this when there is no choice…many of these are parents who are cutting back on food for themselves to try to make sure their children have enough.”
What a damning indictment of life in coalition Britain and of the whole capitalist system – a system in which rich layabouts can spend thousands of pounds on a single meal yet poor families are starving just a few miles away.
“Problem families” or failed system?
The other thing to stand out from this report, it runs like a thread of shame through the whole book, is the government’s indifference to all this. Time and time again they deny that action is needed, that the problem cannot be solved (which under capitalism is true to an extent) and therefore should not be tackled. Even worse, they try to suggest that the blame for poverty lies with…the poor! This is the reasoning behind the Tories (and some right wing Labour voices also) obsession with so-called “problem families”. These people, we are told, are to blame for everything and, even worse, pass their “poverty genes” on from one-generation to another.
The report makes clear that this is both a fiction and an excuse on the part of a failed system. From this flows the argument that the poor must be punished for being poor, hence the attacks on benefits and the brutal regime of sanctions on those affected.
These are the real Victorian Values (as the late playright Alan Plater once put it) that the upper classes like to go on about at their summer parties – child labour, begging and starvation, soup kitchens, slum housing and so on. We will return to this again in a later article.
This report provides a staggering amount of ammunition against the capitalist system and its representatives in government. However, only the ideas of Marxism provides an explanation for the appalling situation outlined in detail here and, more importantly, a way forward which is the fight for socialism.
Having read this report one conclusion is inevitable: Breadline Britain needs a revolution – there are 20 million reasons already!