Jobs are no longer a route out of poverty:
Getting into work is the best route out of poverty for families in the UK. At least, that’s the line the British government takes.
The cabinet seems very proud of the fact that the national employment rate, currently 74%, is at its highest ever and unemployment, at just 5%, is at a near-historical low. As of April this year, minimum wage for workers aged 25 and over stands at £8.21 per hour, up from £6.19 at the end of 2012. At first glance, you might think that these glad tidings mean that there are now fewer poor people in the UK. We live in complex times, however, and it’s unwise to take the Tory’s self-affirmations at face value.
More Britons might be working than ever before, but the rate of absolute poverty in the UK has been steadily climbing over the past ten years after housing payments are taken into account. Rough sleeping has soared by a whopping 165% since 2010. Life expectancy has stagnated, and millions of children are going to school hungry every day - and numbers continue to rise. There are now 2000 food banks across the UK, having sprung up in their thousands after the financial crisis (before which there were just 29).
Not least, the composition of households living below the breadline has changed for the worse. A decade or so ago, the number of poor people living in ‘working’ households was 40%. Today, it’s over half. Most disquieting is the effect of this change on children - nearly 3 million children from working families are now living in absolute poverty.
Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom. Pensioners, for example, a group largely shielded from cuts, have seen a huge decrease in levels of deprivation - the number of pensioners living in absolute poverty has fallen from 50% in the early 90s to just 15%, thanks to welfare benefits and a generous state pension which is adjusted for inflation. The numbers of people in work also shouldn’t be dismissed entirely; anxiety levels are down and general wellbeing in the UK is up, which can likely be attested to increased pervasiveness of stable employment.
But Britain’s workers really are struggling, and Britain’s experience shows that being in work is not always enough to keep afloat. Austerity has hit working families hard, and benefit cuts have left thousands struggling to stay above the breadline. Working families with small children have recently seen their child benefits frozen and working tax credits unpegged from inflation, now rising at only 1% per year.
It’s not just the government’s austerity programme that’s to blame, however; after all, as numbers of working poor have risen, many un-working families have been lifted out of poverty. Housing prices are an obvious culprit - since 2009, the average cost of a home in Britain has increased by 10% in real terms. Londoners are some of the hardest hit by the housing crisis, spending a third of their disposable income on rent.
Changes to the labour market have also damaged worker’s long-term employment prospects. Full time work is increasingly scarce, and more and more people are trapped in unstable, part time or temporary jobs. This issue hits those at the bottom end of the labour market, whose skills are typically least in demand, disproportionately hard and many do not work enough hours to make a living wage. The IFS estimates the number of workers in the bottom quarter of the income spectrum in relative poverty as 21%.
The logic behind Conservative welfare reforms has been based on incentivising people to get into work. The centre-left is equally guilty; Clinton’s benefit cuts were aimed at tackling dependency culture and promoting personal autonomy. Blair’s ethos was largely the same - encourage people find work, and stay there. The above presents a challenge to the intellectual basis these types of reform.
Jobs simply aren’t doing enough to keep people out of poverty. With burgeoning housing costs and a skittish labour market, low-paid workers with volatile incomes are in need of a safety net, as well as a job. Universal credit in its current incarnation (which involves a five week wait period before claimants receive their payments) is a meager exacerbating the problem, rather than healing it. In this kind of climate, it is essential that social policy focuses on more than just employment.
It’s often said that a free press is essential to a healthy democracy. When compared to standards elsewhere in the world, the British press looks to be doing pretty decently.
We shouldn’t get too carried away, though; in the absence of a Xinhua News equivalent, control over our national media has been granted to an entirely different (though perhaps equally troubling) faction. Most British media outlets are controlled by a tiny and very wealthy elite, who are typically as elusive as they are unaccountable.
It was Napoleon who once argued that “four hostile newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.” Judging by the situation today, he seems to have been on to something.
News broadcasters wield tremendous power over politicians, who for the most part, do everything they can to avoid unfavourable coverage. It’s easy to see why, given the considerable influence papers can have on voting behaviour.
With SW1 at their heels, media moguls are free to present whatever version of events they so choose – however far this may deviate from the truth. Indeed, Brexit has made this more obvious than perhaps ever before.
It’s no secret that some of Brexit’s major backers have already got richer as the rest of the country’s economy has wavered post-2016. All the while, it’s been easy enough to funnel public anger towards Westminster and Brussels and away from their own misgivings – unchallenged by a government more than happy to dance to their tune.
If anyone needs convincing, they need only look back on Westminster’s response to 2016. Its unquestioning insistence on respecting the referendum result, despite the serious legal failures of both major Leave campaigns, is telling to say the least. In any other circumstance, such violations would have been more than enough to entirely cripple any mandate. In fact, the only thing preventing courts nullifying the result altogether was the fact that it wasn’t legally binding.
Yet, politicians were complicit and the right-wing press in particular was handed full control of the narratives surrounding the referendum. Why? Put simply, being tarnished with the ‘Enemies of The People’ brush doesn’t exactly strengthen your electoral prospects.
Of course, we’ve come to accept a level of bias in major publications as being pretty much par for the course. Most papers are unashamedly prejudiced in their political leanings, and after all, sensationalism is how they sell their wares.
It’s no secret that people are drawn to papers that create echo chambers for their own views – a problem no doubt, but the phenomena’s very existence relies, at least, on a conscious public awareness of newspaper bias. We’re perhaps less susceptible to spurious headlines from the usual suspects, but they’re by no means the only offenders.
Worse, arguably, is the bias that now exists within broadcasters with an explicit duty to be neutral. I’m referring, of course, to the BBC. BBC complaints have reportedly been flooded by remain voters angry at the lack of coverage given to pro-Remain MPs and anti-Brexit marches.
Despite his recent outburst on BBC’s Andrew Marr show, Farage has a lot to be thankful for. Even his most pernicious claims, and those of others on his side, continue to go largely unchallenged despite their (in some cases obvious) untruth. Lest we not forget, talk of leaving the single market was “absolute madness” until an overnight U-turn in the direction of a no-deal; a decision that flew seemingly under the radar of the mainstream media.
Last week, an episode of a BBC panel show was cancelled, due to it featuring the interim leader of new pro-Remain party Change UK. The feature was deemed inappropriate to run during election time. Meanwhile, Farage’s countless fish-related photo-ops continue to get air time (needless to say, the fish do not look best pleased).
While it might be doubtful that the BBC is harbouring an express pro-Brexit bias, it’s easy to see where it’s unwillingness to challenge key Leave supporters has come from. The corporation is consistently under pressure from the reactionary right, and its fearfulness of this is palpable.
It is hard to imagine a world in which even the most popular frontmen of Brexit will escape the process unscathed; as the realities set in and public opinion turns against them, the democratic process will hold them to account. But writers, journalists, media fat-cats – the less discernible architects of Brexit – are unlikely to suffer the same consequences. People will be buying The Sun long after Rees-Mogg is cast into political irrelevancy.
We must maintain a free press, but there is no freedom without responsibility. Our media is responsible for public education, which we cannot do without if we are to place trust in democracy.