Shaping debate on religion in public life.

When the shocking numbs us, what do we do?

28 Sep 2018

Associate Research Fellow Tina Hearn urges us to allow ourselves to be shocked by some of the recent statistics on UK poverty and asks what action we can take.

When was the last time you were shocked by the news?  When were you last so outraged by what you heard that you felt you had to do something?

Political news tends to ebb over the summer, creating spaces for issues which otherwise struggle for attention when Westminster politics is in full flow; yet notwithstanding Brexit, some arguably shocking news stories have received limited coverage this summer. For example, statistics have been released which indicate profound and growing levels of poverty. The recent Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) report, whose commissioners included Justin Welby, highlighted that there are huge and growing disparities in income and wealth in the UK, with 14 million people living below the poverty line (22 per cent of the population!), including 4.5 million children. These findings were confirmed by the report from the Social Metrics Commission (SMC), which formed as a response to the Government’s abolition of child poverty targets as an official measure in 2015. Equally shocking, given the constant refrain of “work is the best route out of poverty”, 67 per cent of those 14 million people are living in working households. The Child Poverty Action Group’s commentary helps to humanise these statistics:

  • There were 4.1 million children living in poverty in the UK in 2016-17. That is 30 per cent of children, or 9 in a classroom of 30.
  • Child poverty blights childhoods. Growing up in poverty means being cold, going hungry, not being able to join in activities with friends. For example, 50 per cent of families in the bottom income quintile would like, but cannot afford, to take their children on holiday for one week a year.

Even more shocking is the fact that the bulk of the Government’s austerity measures, such as cuts to Tax Credits (top-up payments for working families on very low pay), have been focussed on the poorest in this country, further exacerbating poverty. Policy initiatives such as Universal Credit, which is currently being rolled out, are also contributing to pushing people further into poverty through abnormally high rates of sanctions, system errors and payment deductions. As the IPPR report notes, figures such as these should be placed in the context of the fact that:

“Forty-four per cent of the UK’s wealth is owned by just 10 per cent of the population, five times the total wealth held by the poorest half, while the richest 1 per cent are estimated to own 14 per cent of the nation’s wealth.” (p.18)

It is a matter of national shame that our country faces a UN probe over extreme poverty in the UK. Overall, a shocking indictment of the political and policy decisions of the sixth richest country in the world. William Temple was certainly shocked about levels of poverty and inequality the 1940s, so why are more of us not shocked today?

A range of explanations exist as to why people are seemingly immune to these statistics:

  1. There has been a long-standing political and policy narrative of hopelessness, that globalisation is now an irresistible force, and that it is a key factor in driving down wages. However, according to a recent survey, one in ten firms are failing to pay the minimum wage. As a House of Commons Library report notes: “Very few prosecutions are in fact brought. There was one successful prosecution in 2017”. (p.18) We should not feel hopeless; we should be shocked. And we most certainly should implement these and other important legal protections rigorously.
  2. There are also powerful, derogatory narratives which portray low income families as hopeless cases and people in receipt of income support as less than human. These stories are frequently voiced, and so normalised, by some on the political right and the press. These narratives actually refer to people who struggle to pay ever rising rent and utility bills, and to children who are cold, going hungry, and not able to join in activities with friends in the context of significant disparities of income and wealth. We could and should act.
  3. William Connolly argues that issues such as poverty lack political momentum because of people’s continuing faith and hope in the false promises of our economic system: “the only route out of poverty is work” (most people in poverty are in work), “wealth will trickle down” (wealth has in fact trickled up), “we should place our hope in growth and progress in the future“. However, the IPPR report indicates stirrings of change; people are increasingly agreeing that the UK economy does not work for the poor, low paid and many other social groups.

The dynamics of political change are various, but they often involve jolts or shocks. Sometimes, change comes about through the gradual accretion of small jolts. Perhaps you could contribute by sending your family and friends a link to this blog and ask them what they think? Sometimes political change is about contributing momentum to bodies with the capacity to create bigger shocks. So consider signing up to organisations like Christians Against Poverty, the Child Poverty Action Group and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Sometimes political change is about co-creating tipping points, contributing to a profound shock as William Temple did to the post war welfare state at Malvern. Few of us have that sort of influence, but as the suggestions above indicate, it is certainly possible for us all to contribute to something shocking this week!

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