How Can We Combat Economic Inequality?

How Can We Combat Economic Inequality?

As part of Quaker Equality Week we held a Film and Discussion Evening on Monday March 16th, 2015

A small audience, which included the Labour Party candidate for Bury, William Edwards, and the Green Party candidates for Bury, Helen Geake, and West Suffolk, Niall Pettit, watched three Joseph Rowntree Foundation films on the subject ‘Why Poverty?’ ‘Holiday from Poverty’, ‘The Car’s Got to Go’ and ‘Camden Calling’ tackled some of the reasons for, and consequences of poverty, while also focusing on two projects which are helping to restore confidence, power, self esteem and pride to those caught up in poverty.

Those who are poor feel marginalised and suffer psychologically, fearing what others may think and what might happen. They inevitably feel they need someone else’s permission for everything they do; being treated kindly, as an equal, makes a huge difference.

Accepting help can be difficult and admitting to poverty may lead to being bullied, particularly for children. It was noticeable that many of the parents in poverty had hardly enjoyed childhoods themselves.

The dividing line between economic security and poverty can be very fine and the descent from one to another often not of people’s own making. A couple who had both worked all their lives decided, following a promotion and a pay rise, that they could treat themselves to a 4 x 4 car. Then the wife became ill with cancer and had to stop work. She recovered, but then had cancer again, followed by early onset dementia. The husband could not leave his wife alone, so it was difficult for him to get to work. As a consequence, the car was repossessed, making it hard to get to hospital appointments, and the family spiraled down into poverty, fearful that their house would also be repossessed. The clear message was that, once in debt, it is difficult to get out again. In 2011, when the films were made, 380 people in the UK were declared insolvent every day.

Another person featured had lent his van to someone. Without his knowledge, the van was used to transport £9 million worth of cocaine. It took 9 months to prove that the owner was not guilty of conspiracy with intent to import and supply cocaine. The stress eventually led to him having a breakdown after his wife left, and he became homeless.

The group discussion following the films benefited from the varied experiences and concerns of the audience. Some had experiences of poverty themselves, others worked with people in poverty.

Among the issues raised were:

  • The way low pay is subsidised by working tax credits, i.e. the tax payer is subsidising low wage employers, a system which has already been criticised as counter productive in the past.
  • Many of those in poverty have no ‘safety net’ – whether the absence of other family members with the resources to support them, or geographically scattered families, or government imposed austerity cuts taking away vital services such as Sure Start, or unreasonable benefit sanctions that result in benefits being delayed or cut.
  • Physical and mental health problems exacerbate what is already a difficult situation. We heard of the case of a woman on benefits who had followed the rules – ‘doing the right thing’ – and informed the authorities as soon as her new partner moved in. Her benefits were cut immediately and would only be ‘sorted out’ in 5 weeks. She was left with no food and a family to feed.
  • We also heard of many instances of ATOS cancelling appointments, after the applicant had spent precious money on attending, because they had not been informed of the cancellation. There was testimony about Job Centre staff bringing forward appointments without telling the applicant, so they miss the appointment and are then sanctioned. The Job Centre staff themselves have targets to sanction claimants, and get into trouble if they don’t meet these targets. We even heard that a return to workhouses had been discussed!
  • Young people are particularly badly hit, starting off their adult life with the debt of tuition fees, while internships or apprenticeships are not properly paid.
  • Meanwhile, people are encouraged to buy things, offered credit cards and then get into a downward spiral of debt.
  • 80% of our economy is built on consumerism.
  • Industries have gone and the associated communities decimated.
  • We discussed relative and absolute poverty: if people are cutting back on fuel and food, that must count as absolute poverty.
  • We need to move from the idea of people for jobs to jobs for the benefit of people.
  • A living wage is essential.
  • After a hugely costly war, we managed to establish the NHS and have a large social housing programme. This is a rich country – it is a myth that we cannot afford such things if there is the will to do it.
  • There was a general feeling that the current economic system is bust, and that change must happen at a grass roots level. We can all do something, and were encouraged to start by talking to excluded people – for example, the young people at the YMCA who lack confidence and feel undervalued. An art project involving some of these young people working with older people will shortly be held at the Apex. It has made the young people realize that they have skills too, and are valued by, as they express it, ‘normal people’.
  • Division has been encouraged by the government’s use of language – e.g. ‘scroungers’ and ‘skivers’ – and whipped up by such media as the Daily Mail.

Among other concerns expressed were:

  • ‘No politicians are willing to deal with inequality.’
  • ‘The benefits system no longer supports people adequately.’
  • ‘Civil servants and politicians have no practical knowledge or understanding of working people.’
  • ‘How many of us could have been one or two bad decisions away from disaster, but were saved by fortune or personal circumstances?’
  • ‘Charities are having to take on the role of helping the disadvantaged because the social services are no longer able to cope due to remorseless financial cuts.’