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Writing for the Telegraph, journalist and author James Bartholomew says that the West needs a new way of measuring poverty.

It’s hard to disagree, especially when we consider living conditions even a century ago.

Supposedly, many of our fellow Westerners are living below the poverty line. Yet, they are not only clothed and have roofs over their head but also have a lot of things the rest of us go without.

Bartholomew explains how the definition of poverty changed in the 1960s (emphases mine):

It dates back to 1962 and the annual conference of the British Sociological Association. Two Left-wing academics, Peter Townsend and Brian Abel-Smith, developed a new way of defining “poverty” based on the income level at which people were entitled to a payment called “supplementary benefit”. One person at the conference reported “a mood of conspiratorial excitement” about the idea of redefining poverty. These are her words, not mine, and they do seem revealing. It is as if some people on the Left were longing to find a way in which poverty had not been “conquered” as Barbara Castle had said. They had found a way in which it would always be possible to use the huge emotional power of the word.

The flurry of excitement about redefining poverty concluded with it being defined as 60 per cent of median incomes with adjustment for family size. This definition was eventually accepted by the British government and the European Union. That is the definition which those who talk about poverty in the media are using.

Some might be too young to remember even Americans saying that the war on poverty had been won. This would have been in the 1980s. In Britain, as long ago as 1959, the Labour MP, the late Barbara Castle said:

the poverty and unemployment which we came into existence to fight have been largely conquered.

In recent decades, things have changed. The war on poverty cannot be won, ever, because it would get rid of sociologists, community organisers, charity workers and politicians who make a living from it. Poverty has become an industry.

Bartholomew points out that the median British income has doubled since 1977. Furthermore, he adds that many professionals and tradesmen are living on much less than £23,000 a year. They are paying tax, however, which finances the subsistence of the ‘poor’. Remember, saying that ‘the Government’ will pay for welfare means, in reality, that it is the taxpayer who pays.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, children went without shoes and coats, slept in the same bed and had to start working as soon as they were able. Bartholomew cites Flora (Lark Rise to Candleford) Thompson’s memories of growing up in Oxfordshire, the daughter of a labourer:

There was no running water and, of course, no electricity. The only lavatory for each household was “either in a little beehive-shaped building at the bottom of the garden or in a corner of the wood and toolshed known as ‘the hovel’ ”. It was “a deep pit with a seat set over it”. Once every six months the pit would be emptied creating such a stench that it “caused every door and window in the vicinity to be sealed”. As for food, “fresh meat was a luxury only seen in a few of the cottages on a Sunday”. People mostly depended on bread and lard. “Fresh butter was too costly for general use” and “milk was a rare luxury”. 

Since the rise of the welfare state, the disadvantaged are able to live in council flats and houses which have separate bedrooms and the features everyone else’s home has. That’s great news, certainly, as is a financial safety net, provided it does not become a multi-generational way of life.

A commenter on said of his 1950s childhood in Lincolnshire:

I’m old enough to remember when we moved into a council house from our old condemned cottage in the middle of nowhere (My dad had to punt with his bike across the drain to get onto the road to Boston where [h]e worked as a labourer in the fertilizer factory).

My mother was overwhelmed with the fact that the windows could be closed and we had an inside toilet. And three bedrooms for what ended up as two parents and six kids. We didn’t consider ourselves poor in the fifties.

Luxury! …

Few people classified as poor go without these days:

How many households cannot afford a television? Fewer than 1 per cent. How many people aged 16-24 do not have access to a mobile phone? 1 per cent. Who has access to computers and the internet? Among those aged 25-44, 85 per cent use a computer daily. Added to those who use computers less frequently, that means well over nine in 10 young adults have access to a computer.

Overall, the typical person in modern poverty has access to a mobile phone and lives in a household with a television, an inside lavatory, electricity and probably access to the internet. By all means, observers can call this poverty. But it would have been unrecognisable to Flora Thompson. It is riches beyond their dreams for those I have met in a Masai Mara village in Kenya who live in mud huts with not a single one of the above.

Generally speaking, things are becoming more equal, especially with the increasing precariousness the middle class find themselves in.

So let’s exercise caution when we hear the latest poverty statistics. Poverty is relative and needs, as Bartholomew says, a reclassification.


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