Friday, 12 August 2011

Riots are an opportunity for us to finally address poverty in the UK.

I have held fire on writing a piece about the riots that spread across much of the country (as a Unionist, I won't try and push them as a just English problem) this last week. When such a major news story is ongoing two things are almost certain: 1. Countless articles, blog posts and columns will be written analysing every part of the story and 2. Something will happen that will invalidate every point you want to make. 

Number 1 makes me want to hold off because I recognise that there are many, many better writers out there with far more first hand knowledge of the subject and who can often make the same points I want to make but in a more articulate fashion. Number 2 makes me want to hold off for fear I will look foolish and reactionary or that I have in some way 'jumped the gun' in order to capitalise on an issues currentness. 

In the case of the riots and looting, I was right about Number 1. There have been some truly fantastic pieces written by writers of many differing political viewpoints. However, I needn't have worried about Number 2. My opinion of why these riots occurred is the same today as it was on Saturday: nearly all riots are borne from one mother - Poverty. 

Could I ask those reading this to accept that I do not, at any point condone riotous behaviour in a society that benefits from free &  fair elections and where political representation is plentiful and accountable. There may well be cause to argue the details of such a claim but for the purposes of this post, please don't.  What I want to do is address the conditions in which such behaviour occurs. Whilst it may seem a particularly awful crime, rioting is, at it's base, simply that - a crime. It must be treated as such when punished and it must be treated as such when we look to why it happens.

Crime flourishes from poverty. That really can't be disputed. Obviously not all crime is as a direct result of poverty and not all those who commit it do so because they live in poverty but the evidence is overwhelming in suggesting a clear and direct link between poverty and crime. The usual deterrents against committing offences are either the fear of punishment or a concious thought that what you are doing is wrong. When you are in an impoverished state, there is no fear of punishment. What could be worse than poverty? 

So, we are left to hope that those who have the least in our society will not commit crime simply because it is wrong. Yet this is a society that both explicitly and implicitly demonises being poor. We have perpetuated the belief that by being poor, then by definition you are already doing something wrong. The language many use to describe the poor is nearly always demeaning, even if that is not the intent. When people refer to benefit claimants most people automatically picture in their mind someone who is jobless, or gets some form of disability benefit. Of course the truth is that the vast majority of people who receive some form of state aid do so in order to supplement their income.

Those at the bottom of our society have been completely marginalised. There is no fear of the punishment that crime carries and the understanding of what's right has been completely corrupted. It's easy to point at MP's fiddling expenses or bankers being bailed out as examples of high profile corruption & greed going relatively unpunished but the corruption of what's right is in plain view every day. When massive companies lay off hundreds of their lowest paid yet still pay out huge dividends to shareholders and directors still receive enormous salary packages what signal does that send about what we, as society think is right?

When people have to go around the supermarket buying only the cheapest of produce and then worry if there's enough left over to buy gas or shoes for their children whilst 30 tills ring through hundreds of thousands of pounds in profit every minute, do we really expect people to accept that this is right? Whilst making a profit is fair, making it and then hoarding it whilst millions struggle to survive is surely morally questionable? Can't we strike a balance?

A common complaint from many commenter's over the week has been that these riots can't be about poverty because they were organised on Blackberry's and the rioters targeted luxury goods and not essentials. I just want to put aside for a minute the fact that poverty is obviously relative (no one in the UK suffers the same poverty, at least not in real terms, as many millions in other less affluent places in the world) and reiterate the point that whilst poverty may not have been the specific reason for the riots, it was poverty that created the conditions in which the riots found ground. 

Let's deal with the relativity now. Yes, many people that are technically in poverty in the UK do have a house, they do have money to eat (at least just enough) and many also have mobile phones. They also have Televisions and many have access to the internet. Who seriously wants us to level that down? There will always be people at the very bottom but surely we want what is essentially our minimum standard to be above all other minimum standards? Don't we want to be the country where even our poor are comfortable?

Of course, this is unworkable if those who are unfortunate to be at the bottom can obtain that minimum through the state if those just above can't obtain it through their own means. In other words, when being entirely dependent on the state is more beneficial than working. At present there are very few examples of where this is the case and in those cases it nearly always involves some extenuating circumstances. However, it can't be denied that the financial rewards for working full time are not significantly over and above those for not. This must be addressed but it must be addressed by levelling up, not down. Benefits must not be cut because we simply must not lower our standards. What we must do is explore ways in which work provides much greater reward. 

All of this assumes that work is available and the reality is that it is not but it could be if the Government really wanted to address poverty. It is a myth that we have run out of money. Yes, we are operating with a deficit and ideally we'd like a surplus but Government isn't a business and shouldn't be run with the same objectives. The Government is overly focused on deficit reduction by way of cutting spending when it should be focused on it by way of stimulating growth. The only sure way for a government to stimulate growth is to invest and this government needs to invest massively in social infrastructure in order to properly tackle the causes of poverty - bad education, poor quality housing, lack of facilities. 

We can either spend state money on welfare or spend state money on jobs and investment but either way, we will continue to spend state money so lets try and do some good with it for once. 

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