More often than not, whenever I purchase a copy of The Big Issue I have to stop myself from saying to the seller, “It’s okay, I don’t actually want the magazine but take my money anyway”. However, if I did say that it would deprive the seller of his/her dignity and I would never wish to do that. I don’t know if you’ve ever been a Big Issue seller yourself but the deal is that you have to become registered with your local branch and once accepted, you’re given a pitch from which to sell your magazines. I say magazines but they are more like free newspapers really, maybe slightly better quality but not up to the standard of a regular magazine like Q or Mojo. The vendor/seller has to buy their stock of Big Issues, usually on a daily basis, before going out to flog them, hopefully. The magazine currently sells at £2.50 which gives the vendor a profit of £1.25 – a 50% mark up which isn’t bad considering. However, unlike regular newspaper sellers, the Big Issue vendors cannot return their unsold copies for a refund – they are stuck with them until sold. I’ve known some excellent Big Issue sellers in my time, those who know exactly how many copies to buy, when to start selling them and so on. It might surprise you to know that very few vendors are actually homeless, many are simply hard up, struggling with their benefit claims, addicted to alcohol or heroin ,or, they simply enjoy the freedom that self-employment brings. It’s not all fun though, the community of Big Issue sellers is like most other communities, people gossip, spread rumours, treat newcomers with suspicion, ostracize those who refuse to conform etc. They might even try and steal your pitch if they think you’re selling more than them.
The guy who started the Big Issue franchise, John Bird, maintains that it was always his intention to give the homeless and others who were also down on their luck, a way in which they could help themselves. It’s a noble thought, a long way from John Rowles’ Principle of Social Justice but, I would agree that creating a nation of magazine vendors is preferable to blinding the poor so that they become more successful beggars. A new study from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation claims that poverty is costing Britain £78bn a year. This includes £9bn in lost tax revenue and additional benefits spending to address the symptoms of poverty however, most of this £78bn goes into areas of public spending including health care, education, children’s services, police and the criminal justice system. All of these services are seeing huge reductions in State funding whilst simultaneously having to deal with increased public demand for their support. Another recent report on Poverty in the UK found that social mobility is at an all-time low which suggests that less people are managing to move out of poverty by simply moving, whether to take up better paid jobs or relocating to a more affordable area in which to live. It is incredible to think that in the 21st Century, so many people in our country are being held back by poverty. However, as Julia Unwin CEO Joseph Rowntree Foundation states, “Poverty doesn’t just hold individuals back, it holds back our economy too”. It used to be the case that young people would automatically benefit from higher education both socially and economically but that is no longer the case. Students, especially those from poorer backgrounds are increasingly burdened with debt with many of them failing to see when, or, if ever they will be able to pay it off.
There are a huge group of people in the UK for whom the word poverty just doesn’t exist, not that we should ever wish the experience upon anybody. However, it would be great to believe that everyone had enough and that no one need worry about being able to make their next mortgage payment or have to renege on a promise to treat their children to that day-out they’d been looking forward to. In my last few years as a social worker however, before retirement beckoned, I was constantly having to challenge the Department of Work and Pensions [DWP] over unpaid benefits for my clients, organise food parcels for clients, try to find landlords who would accept tenants in receipt of benefits etc. so I know only too well, that poverty is a reality for many people. An awful lot of people, in my experience, are ever only two pay cheques away from finding themselves homeless. I listened to a programme on BBC Radio 4 recently discussing poverty in Britain today and was moved by a young, very articulate mother as she explained how her planned one week holiday with her daughter had been cancelled due to the fact that she needed to replace her washer using the money that she had been saving to pay for the holiday. It’s stories like this that make my blood boil over whenever I read about the “priviledged many” who appear to have so much more than they could ever need. For example, those individuals named in the current “Honours list” put together by David Cameron and largely made up of extremely rich Tory donors. It’s not that I resent those who are already well provided for being rewarded for simply being loyal friends of an exiting PM although, I do. What really rankles is the granting of titles to business leaders who have been questioned over their companies tax affairs, pleaded guilty of contravening the United Nation’s “Oil for Food” programme and lobbied against the government’s support for an alleged business rival. However, when you also have former “spin doctors” getting knighted, it’s time this country became a republic.
Historically, Britain was not always a poor nation. Prior to the advance of Industrialisation, England was a much more equal society although we still had impossibly wealthy individuals ruling over us. However, the general population resembled a happy nation of artisans who made and sold their goods across the land. Early gatherings such as the Nottingham Goose Fair would attract buyers and sellers from every nearby county and sometimes even further. Everything changed towards the end of the 18th Century once the mill owners recognised the potential in mass production. Men and later women, who had not been making as much money as they’d hoped for recently were enticed into working in the factories, those satanic mills as they became known. Children were also working in the mills as well and before long, entire families became as much a fixture of those factories as the machines they toiled upon. The mill owners, the majority of whom had made their fortunes in the slave trade, built villages around their factories so they could have their workers close at hand. They even introduced licensing hours for the local pubs in order to control the amount of ale their workers drank on an evening. More social change came after the First World War, 1914-18 with so many of those who survived the campaign finding themselves, homeless and destitute. This period, rather than the Victorian era which is often portrayed as the harshest time for working class people, is when poverty became an endemic characteristic of the British Isles. The further you were away from London, the greater your chance of being poor. Fortunately, the regions contained many idle yet skilled workers, reminiscent of the time when artisans were the norm and in a relatively short time-span, modern industries took over from the mills as Britain’s major employers. Modernity however, fared only slightly better than the previous industrial era and poverty persisted throughout the 1950s despite the decade being cited as “A golden age for Britain”.
Since the late 1980s we have been living in the Post-modern era, a period characterized by insecurity and risk. We never actually benefited from the “White hot heat of technology” promised by PM Harold Wilson who by the mid 1970s was himself sick of the social turmoil that was tearing Britain apart and ready to retire from politics altogether. Instead we had the trade unions making more and more outrageous demands on their bosses whilst, non-unionised workers received short shrift if they as much as asked for a small increase on their already low wages. However, Margaret Hilda Thatcher PM came along and knocked everyone into line, sold off our council houses, privatised the utility companies, closed down our mining industry and went to war over a tiny island thousands of miles away inhabited by approximately 1300 people and the same number of sheep. And after doing all of this, she then increased the number of welfare benefits available to families who were now in even greater poverty than they had been pre-1979. The only “poor” people who appear to interest our politicians today are those they constantly refer to as “hard working families” without actually identifying who this group are. I can only assume that by the emphasis placed on working that they must be the employed, perhaps not richly rewarded employed but holding down jobs all the same. So here we are, back to Victorian times with its’ notion of “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. The former being worthy of support because they do whatever they can to earn a wage whereas the latter who might be sick, lame or unhinged get nothing because they don’t try hard enough. For example, an unemployed man or woman living in a remote coastal town which probably only ever has three job vacancies a year gets his/her benefits stopped because they failed to apply for fourteen jobs over the past two weeks.
So, how do we tackle poverty? Do we increase benefits or do we expand the economy, in other words, create jobs? I suggest the answer is that we do both but not in the way that John Bird did with his Big Issue enterprise. You need to tackle poverty from the bottom up rather than the top down which is the approach most charities adopt. It’s the old “teach a man to fish” parable “and he will always have food on his table” as opposed to giving him the occasional hand out. Every human being has a set of core values which they carry from birth onwards, everything else they assume is simply adopted along the way and perhaps, the greatest of those core values is Dignity. It is this value that drives each individual to better themselves and in turn, create a better society however, when forces work against the individual then society fails. Mrs Thatcher once said that there was no such thing as “society” only “individuals” which, in my opinion, explains how easily she took to destroying whole communities/societies full of decent people whose only crime was to vote Labour. She may have increased the range of Welfare Benefits on offer but Mrs Thatcher’s politics threw more people into poverty than any government before or since. People don’t want to rely on hand-outs unless they absolutely have no alternative. The only people, in my experience, who relish the thought of doing as little as possible in return for as much as they can get are criminals and we can do without any more of them in our society. Seriously though, if poverty is ever going to be reduced to a level where it can be relieved by an occasional hand-out then the government has to be held to account. The state has to take responsibility for the lack of social housing, the scarcity of jobs in large parts of the country, the short-falls in public transport outside of the metropolitan centres, poor health care and so on. In other words, bring back the welfare state only make it bigger and make it work for everyone this time not just the middle-classes.