From the February 1967 issue of the Socialist Standard
Let us get one or two ideas straight first of all. Poverty is a conditions from which all workers suffer to some extent or another. It is a basic factor of working class existence, whether you are comparatively high or low-paid. Take the word at its full meaning “want of means” and you will see that our claim is justified, for any person who has to depend on a wage or salary for a living must have a restricted access to the means of life, and can never broaden the access sufficiently to enable him to live without the need to work if he wishes. “If poverty is relative” said Professor Townsend recently, “standards are largely determined by the income, wealth, living standards and expectations of the rich.”
How right he was. Yet because of a mixture of ignorance, confusion and petty snobbery, this important fact has been overlooked. And matters have not been helped by the arrival of ‘social security’ schemes since the end of the second world war; to the popular mind, poverty has become synonymous with destitution. The Labour Party must take no small share of the blame for fostering such an attitude. Their policy statement Labour and the New Society, published in 1950, carried the claim, for example, that “Destitution has been abolished.”
Well let us see how such a statement stands up to examination in the capitalism of the sixties. The Board of Inland Revenue report for 1963-4 showed between six and seven million people with a yearly income, before tax, of less than £275. Another 4½ million received between £300 and £500, and ten million were in the £500-£l,000 range. At the other end of the scale, about ten thousand people enjoyed (there is no other word for it) a yearly income of £15,000 or more. In fact an appraisal of the Board’s figures made by The Economist (26.2.65), suggested that two thirds of Britain’s population had no wealth worth reckoning at all.
So much for the cold hard statistics after centuries of reform and a post-war national insurance scheme, the like of which we have never seen before in this country. Now what does it all mean in terms of human suffering and degradation? You can take your pick from a mass of material appearing in the national press over the past year or two, which seems to have touched on most aspects of the misery of being poor. Running like a thread through all these articles, incidentally, is an implied astonishment that such problems still exist. Only the Socialist does not share the astonishment. The Guardian (18.7.64) for example, spoke of ‘a surprising number' of schoolchildren in some areas needing free meals at school; it mentioned also an increasing demand for local authority handouts of free clothing and shoes. Taking the Don Valley area of Yorkshire as only one instance:
In 1958-59, 200 applications for clothing and shoes were granted; in 1963-64 the figure was 500. In 1961, 2,325 children were receiving free meals; in 1962 this figure rose to 2,500.
It has been found that many truancies from school have been because the children had no shoes to wear. Having grown out of their old ones, their parents were often too poor to buy them a new pair. This point was made in The Poor and The Poorest, a report published at the end of 1965 by Professors Townsend and Abel-Smith. They defined poverty as ‘less than 140 per cent of the basic National Assistance scale, plus housing and other costs' and on this basis, estimated the number of poor people at nearly seven millions —a rise of two per cent in the ten years ending 1960.
In a letter to The Guardian (22.11.66), Professor Townsend severely criticised government departments for the inadequacy of their surveys on the poverty problem, and mentioned specially the question of nutrition. He pointed out that in the lowest income group families (under £15 a week), there was a protein deficiency in their diets of ten per cent and a calcium deficiency of sixteen per cent. In down-to-earth terms, this means meals of baked beans and chips or bread and jam for your children, and virtually nothing for yourself, like the young mother mentioned by Jean Stead (Guardian, 2.2.66):
. . . who is 28, looks as if she was once very pretty, but now she is worn and undernourished and her top teeth are missing. She lives on tea and cigarettes, like most mothers in poor families, and rarely has a proper meal. Cigarettes kill the appetite.
So we can begin to appreciate the all-pervasiveness of the poverty condition; there is not a single aspect of our lives it will not touch — and degrade — to some extent or another, depending on our particular position in the income scale. Food, clothing, housing, the bare necessities, and the amenities like holidays or a night at the cinema, nothing can escape. The whole quality of our life suffers.
There are those who have even let go of a once-tenuous hold on impoverished respectability and become ‘drifters’, homeless ones often sleeping rough, unable to compete in the struggle to make both ends meet. An official report published last November (which was criticised for being too low in its estimate) mentioned about 13,500 people who were without accommodation when they applied for National Assistance during a week at the beginning of December 1965. With a priggish disdain so typical of that paper, Guardian writer John Fairhall refers to them as ‘derelicts swilling about at the very bottom of the barrel.’
And having told us about the evil in no uncertain terms, what answer have the experts? The usual palliatives are offered and impertinently described as ‘fundamental’ by their authors; yet none of them could do other than keep the poor that way. For example: '. . . more decent housing for low-wage families at rents they can afford’ (Abel-Smith, Weekend Telegraph, 25.11.66). The truth is that like so many of capitalism’s problems, this one is gigantic. Eighteen per cent of all households in the U.K. are said to be living below National Assistance levels, and such is the depth of their poverty, that it would cost about £500 millions a year just to relieve the effects on their children. In face of such terrifying facts, the “experts” have no answer.
As we said at the beginning, poverty goes hand in hand with wage slavery at whatever income level. True, not every worker suffers as much as those we have mentioned, but capitalism exerts a downward pressure on all of us and no government can do very much about it. Captured in the phraseology of Townsend (a long-standing Fabian and Labour supporter) the score reads something like this:
It will be one of the supreme paradoxes of history if social inequalities become wider instead of narrower, if poverty becomes more widespread, during the term of office of the present Labour Government. Yet the likelihood of this happening is far from remote.