The Road to Wigan Pier Revisited, by Stephen Armstrong. Constable. £11.99.
In 1936 George Orwell travelled to Wigan and wrote a classic account of the extent and effects of poverty. Now Stephen Armstrong has gone not just to Wigan but also to other towns in the north of England to report his findings.
There are many similarities between the thirties and now: a recession, high unemployment and cuts in government spending, for instance. Above all, there is destitution, as many people are barely able to survive on what little they earn or the pittance they receive from the state. It is the personal accounts Armstrong provides that bring this home far more than any statistics could do.
One nineteen-year-old woman in Manchester was pregnant but she overslept and missed her first scan. As she had no proof she was pregnant, the Job Centre sanctioned her for being late for an interview: she was taken off Jobseeker’s Allowance and had to make do with hardship payments of £28 a week. Job Centre staff are given a target of referring three people a week for sanctioning (their jobs supposedly consist of helping people into employment).
Another woman was made redundant, and now she cannot afford to heat her house in winter. She cuts Brillo pads in half before using them, has stopped buying butter since it went up 5p and uses her old clothes as cleaning cloths. One twelve-year-old sometimes eats only a bowl of cereal a day. He has never been outside Wigan. Another woman gets about £8 a day in benefits and is reduced to sleeping on her daughter’s sofa. She says, “It’s horrible, there’s nowt to look forward to, there’s nowt to fetch kids into this world. I’ve worked all my life and I’ve got nothing to show.”
Most of the poor are not on benefits, however, but are employed. A particularly nasty development is zero-hour contracts, which do not actually guarantee paid work during slack periods. One man interviewed had a four-hour contract at Argos in Warrington, which made him ineligible for unemployment benefit. Things were OK when he worked 36 hours a week, but during a period of heavy snow there were few shoppers and most staff were sent home with four hours pay at minimum wage: £28. These and many others are part of the ‘precariat’ (a blend of precarious and proletariat).
As Armstrong says, ‘the poor make a lot of people very, very rich’. If you pay for gas or electricity using a prepayment meter or cards, you pay a much higher rate than those who get a regular bill. Payday loan companies and doorstep lenders such as Provident Financial exploit this ‘non-standard credit market’ and do very nicely out of it (Provident made pre-tax profits of £62 million in the first six months of 2011). Rent-to-buy companies like BrightHouse sell TVs and other goods via weekly payments which can add up to well over twice the straightforward purchase price. They have vicious late-payment charges and are not above shouting to the whole street that you owe them money. A New York hedge fund has a majority stake in the company.
Unfortunately, Armstrong spends too much time criticising MPs for fiddling their expenses, and does not look into the real reasons for the poverty he depicts, class ownership and the profit motive.