Poverty and hunger – accept no excuses

By Bernadette Meaden
October 22, 2020

The capacity of our society to create confusion, distraction and obfuscation around the issue of poverty and economic injustice seems almost unlimited. We split it up into categories we can deal with, like food poverty and period poverty, or we come up with complicated analyses of the possible causes, or the ‘pathways to poverty’, as Iain Duncan Smith would say.

One of the latest examples is discussion of ‘the white working class’, specifically white working class boys, and the suggestion that they are suffering from ‘status deficit’, because more attention is paid to other disadvantaged groups.  This suggestion was made by Professor Matthew Goodwin in the context of educational attainment at a hearing of the Education Select Committee, and was predictably seized upon by those on the right who claim that white privilege simply doesn’t exist. It was notably not seized upon when the opportunity arose to help those same boys, by giving them free school meals over the holidays.*

Whilst of course we need to look at who is struggling in education and address the causes of that, there’s a danger that this will be added to the long list of issues which distract us from the systemic, structural nature of poverty. What the entire working class is suffering from most is not lack of attention, it’s lack of justice. A ‘status deficit’ is debatable – a cash deficit is undeniable.

And unfortunately, these discussions around educational attainment feed into the often well-meaning, but in my opinion misguided, promotion of social mobility as the solution to poverty.

The social mobility approach sees education as the primary route out of poverty. Of course the more people who have their lives enriched by a good education the better, for them and for society.  That is beyond question. But if we say that poverty should be solved by people getting a better education and therefore a better job, we are accepting a very unjust assumption. The assumption being that it is somehow acceptable for jobs which don’t require much in the way of qualifications, or perhaps any qualifications at all, to be very low-paid and/or insecure. The implication is that poverty wages and a constant fear of hunger or eviction are almost the natural, and perhaps justifiable consequence of not passing exams.

This has not always been the case, even in living memory. Working class people who are now in their eighties or nineties will nearly all have left school at a very young age, often with no qualifications to speak of.  And yet, many of them were able to build decent lives, often buying their own homes, and eventually getting an occupational pension that has given them a modest but dignified retirement.  

But gradually, jobs that are considered low-skilled (but ususally aren't), or which don’t require higher qualifications, became very low paid and often insecure. We, as a society, allowed that to happen. Zero-hours contracts, the loss of sick pay and pensions, these were all changes that society allowed to happen.

But just as we should never accept race or ethnicity as a justification for poverty wages, so we should not accept lack of educational attainment as a justification either. Every job should pay a Real Living Wage. Nobody who works (and of course nobody who is not in work) should be struggling to eat. Even before the pandemic, many people feared eviction or being unable to feed their children, and we as a society had chosen to accept that. Some of us have even, through propaganda and misinformation, been persuaded to blame the victims. This was evident in the free school meals debate, when Conservative MPs and their supporters blamed ‘irresponsible parents’ for their children going hungry – conveniently not mentioning the £37 billion they have cut from working-age benefits over the past decade. That is a lot of money that is no longer going into the pockets of the poorest people, is no longer being spent in the poorest communities.

And the supreme irony is that, as we live through this pandemic, it is increasingly obvious that these low paid, insecure jobs and the people who do them are the absolute bedrock of our society. Delivery drivers, warehouse workers, cleaners, care workers, supermarket staff, bus drivers, council workers – all of them have kept society going, at personal risk to themselves and often for poverty wages.

Somebody recently said, "Lockdown was middle class people working from home, and working class people bringing them stuff". Of course that’s a very broad generalisation, but there is quite a lot of truth in it. And now that we have experienced, in a quite profound way, our interdependence, we should not accept any excuses for poverty wages and chronic financial insecurity for anyone, whatever their background or qualifications.

So yes, we can debate educational attainment and lots of other issues, but please don’t accept them as an explanation or a justification for poverty, because they aren’t. In fact, the reality is that child poverty is a major factor in poor educational attainment. Hungry children in damp, overcrowded housing without internet access will struggle to learn – and if that predictable impact of their childhood poverty is used to justify poverty in their adult life, that is injustice heaped upon injustice.

* The Labour government in Wales and the SNP government in Scotland have extended free school meals over the holidays, and the Northern Ireland Executive has just extended them over the October half term, so this point applies to England only.


© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden



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