If you’ve seen the Young Foundation commentary on what’s wrong with the world we’ve created, you’ll know income poverty is just one of our crippling social ills.
We live in faceless places that make our souls shrivel. We feel powerless. Our lonely lives end in undignified deaths. In between there’s stress, fear, anger, bullying and boredom. It’s life Jim, not that you’d know it. We can’t find the colour or hear the heartbeat. We take our self-destructive pleasures where we can find them.
This week’s Wealth of the nation report which looks at who’s rich, who’s poor and where they live, has an altogether different tone. It’s a ‘them and us’ report which includes what I like to think of as a poverty checklist. How do you know you’re poor? Well, if you own a timeshare you’re probably rich whereas if you tend to go on camping holidays you’re probably poor. Do you go to nightclubs? Give yourself a poor point. You get extra poor points for going to the bingo, reading the TV times and eating at KFC and McDonalds.
Eating at Pizza Express, hanging out at coffee bars, playing bridge, going skiing and tuning into the Today programme get you wealth points.
Frivolity aside, both reports show how far we’ve come from a one-dimensional discourse about haves and have-nots. To some extent we know this already. The term social exclusion came into being precisely to capture the fact that problems in our most disadvantaged communities aren’t always related to a lack of money to buy things. Although too many people in Britain still live on frighteningly low incomes, it’s no longer enough for governments to simply draw a poverty line and devise policies to raise people above it.
Poverty and social exclusion are moving targets. Even as it struggles to lift millions of children out of poverty ministers have to admit that more are being born into poverty or are coming into this country from other parts of the world. New migrant workers are facing exploitation and destitution. Mental illness, obesity and the feeling that we’ve somehow failed ourselves is rife. Government policy hasn’t quite caught up and it’s not clear that it can or will.
The face of poverty, exclusion and disadvantage is changing but it isn’t going away.
Susan Downer, assistant editor, New Start Online magazine