Thursday, November 23, 2006

Relative Poverty Isn't An Absolute

The fuss over Greg Clark's invocation of Polly Toynbee's name is a typical example of a media firestorm on an extremely slow news day. As I listened to various news bulletins I could scarcely believe my ears. You could be forgiven for thinking that Greg Clark was suggesting slaughtering the first-born from the reaction of some people, and this is reflected in some of the comments on the previous post and on Conservative Home. It makes me wonder if people ever actually bother to read what he said before they are ready to denounce him. Well, here's a short YouTube video Greg recorded yesterday evening for 18DoughtyStreet. I would have thought his views would resonate with most thinking Conservatives. The only bone of contention in what he says is how you define poverty, so, as Connie would say, let's start from the very beginning...

Poverty is defined in an Online Dictionary thus: the condition of being extremely poor. If you are in poverty, you are probably unable to pay your bills, are struggling to have a roof over your head and are finding it difficult to feed yourself and your family. Indeed, that is how I have always thought of it. However, lingua-fascists have now redefined the word to include anyone who is earning less that 60% of the median wage. Quite when this happened, no one's quite sure, but I trace it back to the 1980s when the Child Poverty Action Group tried to tell us that three million children in this country were living in poverty. It was rubbish then, and it's rubbish now.

Of course there are children, and indeed many adults, who are impoverished. No one denies that, and everyone would agree that it is a prime duty of the State to lift those people out of poverty, but to pretend that someone who is earning between £12,000 and £15,000 a year is living in poverty is a joke.

So the argument has moved on to a debate about whether we should be talking about absolute poverty (as per Churchill) or relative poverty (as per Polly Toynbee). The answer is that they are not necessarily mutually exclusive. In Churchill's day there was a huge amount of absolute poverty in the country but this has almost totally gone. Sure, there are still pockets of poverty, especially in big cities and certain rural areas (this reminds me of a great quote from John Gummer - "poverty is consdidered quaint in rural areas, because it comes thatched") and the State has by and large failed to lift people in those areas out of poverty. The task is now falling to social entrepreneurs, outside the State machinery, to do this. So as the level of absolute poverty has declined to a small fraction of what it was half a century ago, it is only natural that politicians from all sides start to examine relative inequalities - note that I decline to use the phrase 'relative poverty'.

Polly Toynbee's analogy of a long train of caravans trekking through a desert, one behind the other is a good one. She is worried about what happens if the caravans at the back become detached from the rest of the group - for 'group', read 'society'.

I am not someone who believes that everybody must be equal. Like Boris Johnson in today's Telegraph, I believe that society needs winners and losers. Winners must be rewarded, but society cannot function properly if we forget about the losers. But I actually regard it as a triumph of our society that we can even talk in terms of losers being people who earn 40% of the media wage.

As Pascal says in the comments to the previous post... "Maybe I am confused, but doesn't the concept of relative poverty means that there ALWAYS will be poverty, no matter how much you raise the lower incomes? At least not until everybody earns the same amount."

I don't think even Polly Toynbee is suggesting the latter, but Pascal's point is a valid one, and perhaps one which Greg Clark ought to address. I don't know what the media wage is in Liechtenstein, but I suspect that under the current definition of 'relative poverty' a large number of very wealthy people would be caught in the poverty trap there. We Conservatives must not be defined by the language of the left and if Greg Clark made an error, it was possibly falling into that trap.

I have absolutely no problem at all in agreeing with the Polly Toynbee Caravan anecdote, and I totally agree with Greg Clark that the concept of 'no one left behind' is something that all Tories should adhere to. After all, Greg and I both supported a leadership candidate last year who said this...

The just society, for Conservatives, is one in which no one is deprived of opportunity, and no one is excluded. It is, indeed, the fulfilment of Churchill's dream of a Britain, in which "there is a limit beneath which no man may fall, but no limit to which any man might rise"... Tories in recent years have become too timid about saying how we want to improve society. We sometimes behave as if the Left, with their vocabulary and their policies, had acquired a freehold on social policy... The test of any Conservative policy is how it affects the poorest in society.

Amen to that. Perhaps we now need a real debate on what poverty actually means in the 21st century. Can we really equate poverty in this country with poverty in places like Darfur or Rwanda? Perhaps someone needs to invent a new word. Best that we do it before Polly Toynbee does.


Anonymous said...

Iain, you commissioned the book The Welfare State We're In. Don't you remember the bit in it where James Bartholomew mentions that it was around the time of the 1962 Labour Party Conference (I think) that the Labour party hit upon this wheeze as a way of continually being able to drag up the spectre of poverty at a time of increasing affluence.

The clever thing was that it inserted into political discourse a bogus justification for the Labour party's continued existence when the problems of poverty are largely capable of being tackled by Conservative policies.

Eradicating this definition of relative poverty from official government thinking is a "must" if there is to be a long-term strategic fight against the continuance of socialism.

Unfortunately, as with many aspects of the current Conservative Party leadership, such strategic thinking on this issue seems to be entirely absent.

Anonymous said...

Iain, the problem with Toynbee's caravan is that in order to stop the one at the back falling behind, the one at the front has to slow to an almost stand-still. That is the essence of Toynbee, she may be interested in making the poor less poor, but she's far more bothered about making the rich (by which she means anyone middle-class upwards except herself) much poorer. If the Conservatives want to go that way, I want no part of it. I mentioned in another post that people would start turning to UKIP. Here is an example in response to Boris' entertaining but misguided Telegraph column.

"Mr Johnson,

Where you see a natural Thatcherite in Polly Toynbee, I see an odious hypocrite who is prepared to spend any amount of someone else's money in order to achieve her goal of an end to 'relative poverty'.

What is 'relative poverty'? It means that some people are much poorer than others, basically. To end it, simple mathematics tells you that everyone needs to be on virtually the same wage. Even a handful of people on huge salaries - those oh-so-evil corporate types, or perhaps those overpaid egotists who run our public services - could knock the relative poverty scale out of kilter.

I know that there are some people in the UK who live in actual poverty. These people must be helped. But what Clark, Cameron and the Tories propose is breathtakingly arrogant. Firstly, they reject everything that makes them Conservatives. Secondly, they flick offensive hand-signals at their own party. I am not surprised that Tory leadership is now back on the slide after a few months of growth - those few months when Cameron kept his flapping trap shut about 'social justice'.

Doubtless you would gladly support the man reported in the Telegraph last week as having fathered 15 children and claiming £500 a week on benefits. Misunderstood, doubtless, and a victim of the cruelty of capitalism which lets him field a rugby-team worth of idle progeny to be educated and supported at the taxpayer's expense.

As a constituent of Greg Clark, I have already written to him to make my views known. He and Cameron have lost my vote. The Tories are now big-government, high-tax and interventionist. I have cancelled my Tory Party membership and shall be voting UKIP for their low-tax, small-government policies.
Posted by Russell Long on November 23, 2006 8:50 AM"

Anonymous said...

Excellent piece Iain. If you ever managed to get selected for a marginal seat and are scottering around it in your BMW I hope the Labour candidate has the good sense to ram every out of touch, 1980s Thatcherite word of arrogance contained within it right down your throat at every available opportunity.

Anonymous said...

Britain now has the longer dole queue in the world thanks to tax credits.

Employers deliberately offer low wages knowing that the state will subsidise them, and so, tax credits function to keep people in poverty rather than ensure that they get an honest wage for an honest day's work.

The only poverty that really exists in Britain is the lack of common sense.

Iain Dale said...

BMW? I wouldn't be seen dead in one.

And I don't understand your main point. I remain just as much a Thatcherite as ever, and I doubt whether Margaret Thatcher would disagree with a single word of what I have written above. Not sure she's into blogging though...

Anonymous said...

On last night's Newsnight Polly Toynbee made several attacks on Margaret Thatcher. Greg Clark sat there and did not disagree with a single word of that.

Regarding the poverty quote he made an ill-advised choice in Toynbee and created a platform for Polly Toynbee to be given air time to attack our record.

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

neil craig said...

You are quite correct in your denigration of the reclassifying of poverty as being something a bit below the national average. Politics is a business in which words aquire new meanings with unfortunate regularity & this is probably inevitable since it is a business where words are the main assets.

This definition means that social workers can say, along with Jesus, that the poor are always with us & consequently that they must also have jobs for life. By this definition there is more poverty in North Korea than South & more in the USA than India since the latter have more income variability.

The only way to solve poverty, as traditionally defined as lack of wealth is to increase GNP & while there ARE other social goals than that ending poverty by wealth creation is not something to which the "caring professions" make a positive contribution.

Anonymous said...

I note that Clark's piece for 18DS was recorded yesterday evening, after the excrement had hit the air conditioning.

All of a sudden, the words "fantastic reforming legacy of Winston Churchill" were used, along with "brilliant" and "great".

ie damage limitation.

Regardless of the absurdity of "relative poverty", Clark has some reasonable points to make and puts them across quite well. He seems a sober and decent type. I doubt he'll make the same mistake again.

But I don't see this as a non-story. Boris used his Telegraph column today to defend his mate as best he could, but his amusing slapstick didn't really do it.

My bet is that Clark was following CCHQ script to distance themselves from Old Conservative when his paper deliberately suggested that Churchill was soooo last century, whereas the modern Tory is someone who reads Polly Toynbee each week and finds something to like about it.

Sir Pointon said...

I've been relatively poor. When I was at school my uniform stank because it required dry cleaning that we could not afford. I couldn't borrow things that might break becuase I could not replace them. I did not have a bicycle. My home was a basement and when I passed it in the company of friends I would not acknowledge it. They never found out where I lived. By the time I left school I was seething with resentment and became a Clause 4 socialist.

Relative poverty is about envy, and envy is (almost certainly) a heritable trait and will always be with us. If you persist in denying the importance of relative poverty, your edification may eventually come in the form of a Molotov cocktail.

Anonymous said...

The reference to Toynbee concerns me not because it is wrong to try and help the poor but that she seems to deem it essential to punish the wealthy to do so. Approving her goals by direct comparison has the unfortunate side effect of tacitly approving her methods.

Could we perhaps define helping those in poverty as providing the tools with which to address their problems and NOT as taking money from others and giving it to them to buy things they need. Give a man a fish and all that.

Anonymous said...

The "media wage" in Lichtenstein no doubt considerably exceeds the median one!

AnyonebutBlair said...

A good and thoughtful post. I perhaps posted too quickly and in a ill-considered fashion on Conservative Home but the though of Toynbee just makes me fly into a mad rage. I agree with JT that relative poverty is a false definition to justify wealth redistribution. The issue is income inequality. The Tories need to focus on the reasons for this inequality where amongst the causes is the Labour-designed welfare state. Talking about relative poverty is just simply accepting NuLabs narrative in the same way the Tories seem to have accepted the currently ludicrous levels of public spending. If the Conservatives agree with/ape NuLabs policies in most if not all areas, what exactly is the point of them? The election is then fought on "personality" - nasty, brutish Brown vs. nice English Cameron; and managerial competence. I didn't join the Conservative party to wake up and find that it had transformed itself into New Labour in all but logo.

Anonymous said...

Excellent to the see the unsung genius that is JT. As usual however I am going to continue not singing his praises.

No relative poverty is the only sort of poverty that matters it is absolutely no good telling someone who sees a small section of society keeping all the goodies that they are actually better of than the match girls whose faces fell of because of industrial phosphorous.. Conspicuous amongst the privileged , are people like Polly Toynbee , her public school children her wealthy connections , her home in Italy .. but never mind.

By “absolute poverty” the worst sort of social disadvantage can theoretically be justified because of the general fact of economic growth. It has been a very worrying trend that during NuLabs destruction of the working class that a new sort of disconnected underclass has developed. This class is actually going backwards in absolute terms . In real terms it is a catastrophic divide in Society.
Immigration policy , marginal taxation , indirect and stealth tax ( regressive) , benefits and housing policy are the chief culprits together with the failure to protect manufacturing . It is an irony that Labour have hurt the supply side of the economy so much that they have been forced to rely on the worst sport of short term capitalism .
For example , flooding the Labour market and relaxing planning , not attending to the need for apprenticeships and similiar and abandoning grammar schools .

The Conservative Party as Barabara Amiel said months ago has got to start talking about what it is going to do for the poor . It has to tackle growing class division and sadly , as ever with the C`maroon faction there is a vague chat and no policy and no sign that they have ever met anyone who wasn’t a lawyer of meeja parasite or other middleclass careerist. When are the Conservative Partry going to give up their Benneton ad sham inclusiveness and speak to the Unions about what is needed.

A good point but in these hands one has small hopes of any meaningful policy .

JT eradicating socialism would be wrong . Do you think the private secor will provide reliable housing and health . Be realistic , its a question of rolling back the state , if not simply stopping its growth.
For the poor , tax exemption is the first step , extended right to buy another streaming and support for marriage ...undoing , in fact the work of Blair.

Good post Iain , all is not lost . I expect the A list lobotomy is scheduled pretty soon though

Anonymous said...

Off topic, Nick Clarke has died.

Anonymous said...

Iain, in 1990, 25% of children living below the poverty line in the EU lived in the UK. You can argue about the difference between relative and absolute poverty - but you cannot seriously believe that these children enjoyed good enough life chances.

As for Mr Long - I took your argument seriously until you said you would vote UKIP.

I believe in meritocracy, you don't.

Etzel Pangloss said...

Ms. Toynbee might not want those at the back to become detached, but I bet she doesn't want them to overtake those in front either.

Anonymous said...

"Among families with children – and compared to the mid-1990s – there are a quarter of million more individuals living in households with less that 40% of average income. "

Would you define someone who said such a thing as someone who "redefined the word to include anyone who is earning less that 60% of the median wage. "?

Anonymous said...

I'm sure you're right, etzel pangloss. I came across a Churchill quote recently (it might have been on here) which summed up nicely what Toynbee and here ilk are about:

"Socialism is a philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance and the gospel of envy. Its inherent virtue is the equal sharing of misery."

Ms Toynbee is, of course, in an ideal position to be immune to the "misery".

Anonymous said...

If you are seen dead in a BMW, you shouldn't have been driving one in the first place. They really are the ultimate machine. However, the Audi is considered by some to be better. I am living in relative poverty at the moment, and I got caught by the Speed Camera tax twice. Six penalty points within 2 years means I have to retake the driving test! I cannot afford the whole unfairness of this measure.

Even poorer is Lily the Drink. She came over from Latvia. Because it is one of the A8 States, and she did not manage to stay in employment for 12 months, she is unable to claim jobseeker's allowance and housing benefit and council tax benefit. No job, no money, in a capitalist society, this is absolute poverty. How is she expected to survive?

The argument is that we cannot allow those from the A8 States to be a burden on our State. However, when Tony Blair agreed with George W. Bush to go to war on Iraq, I don't recall him asking Gordon Brown if there was any money in the war chest for this private war of his. These wasted billions could have been better spent at home.

The streets of London maybe paved with gold, North of Watford I can see that very soon it will be hand carts going around and the shout of "bring out your dead!" as the starving poor fail to survive this Winter of our discontent...

Anonymous said...

I thought when the tories lost in 1997, and seeing the aftermath in the party's lack of direction, that I was seeing a rerun of what happened in France in 1981 to the right, after Mitterrand won.

I just did not see that it would go all the way to the "fracture sociale" which won Chirac his election in 1995.

Maybe that is what the plan is, albeit 10 years later ?

I mean Chirac being a role model to the tories ! If that is not irony for you, I do not know what is !

That said, the problems I see with Clark's comments is that somehow he is conveying the idea that the conservatives never cared for the poor, which I think is wrong. He also conveys the idea that whatever labour/nulabour thinks and does in that area is right, when it clearly is not.

That somehow the tories really are the nasty party, which in some areas is not entirely wrong (immigration comes to mind, but labour/nulabour is even worse), and that they must apologize for that.

In other words, the new tories are a creation of labour/nulabour, on the latter's terms.

That is the scary thing.

Incidentally, I am humbled to be quoted on your blog.

Whispering Walls said...

I think Polly Toynbee's analogy is poor. A better one would be mice running inside a wheel. On the other hand I love Iain's definition of losers as people who earn 40% of "the media wage".

Anonymous said...

What about poverty of aspiration? The reality of student loans is putting a lot of bright working class pupils off the idea of University. In contrast many of my friends' children see it as their "right" to go to University, despite mediocre exam results and a lack of interest and application in their school work, simply because their parents can afford to support them for three years.
As far as I can see from the people around me, the educational achievment gap has widened enormously along class lines in the last five to ten years.

Anonymous said...

Toynbee today in the Guardian advocates the minimum wage as the best way to speed up the tail of the camel train. She says that all wages must be a living wage able to support a family.

She would cause a surge in unemployment by ignoring the market to such an extent, and that would consign millions to the dustbin of society, impoverishing the very children she claims she wasnts to help.

A living family-suporting wage is nearer £9 an hour than £5.25 - the current level of the minimum wage. Probably 3 million jobs would be lost overnight sending Britain's unemployment to 20%.

While we all love Polly's imagery, we must try to keep one eye on reality.

Of course she is on a high with all the flattery and attention coming her way today. Poor thing. She is one of the least loved of all columnists. A bit of love from David Cameron's team must have melted a portion of her iced over brain.

As Boris points out in the Torygraph, she is as unable to connect her rhetoric with her own reality. It is not surprising she wants the rest of us to join her in her world of make believe. It must be so lonely.

If she wants employers to raise living standards, which is what employers do better than any politican, don't bury them in red tape. Get out of the way and let them get on with building the real society Toynbee's pen can only dream of.

Anonymous said...

Iain, this is bo!!*cks and you know it. Poverty cannot simply be defined as not having enough food in our country. It is about being 'left behind'. You talk patronisingly about people earning £12k not being poor.

Would you like to live on that ? Oh no, I forgot, you see yourself as a 'winner'. My father was an honest, decent, hardworking postman. Does that make him a loser ?

What is your view of children who don't get to go on a summer holiday or don't have enough money to go swimming or have their friends round for a birthday party ?

Of course you won't see that thru the tinted windows in your Audi, not that you would give a shit anyway.

I used to, I'm disgraced to say, think like you. Those people who failed the eleven-plus, well they were just the thickies who didn't deserve better. Then I grew up.

About time you did too. Get a life.

Anonymous said...

The Tories are suggesting that they will combat climate change by introducing energy taxes. These will fall disproportionately on the poor.

The Tories are suggesting that relative poverty is a problem that will be the first priority of the Government i.e. wealth should be more evenly spread.

How will introducing regressive taxes reduce income inequality?

Anonymous said...

We can debate until the cows come home at what level of income a person becomes impoverished. Perhaps today that point is 40% of the national average income I dunno. But I'm sure tommorrow, or next year, it will be a different number. Sadly La Polla seems to be implying that 40% is a constant as permanent as Pi.

As for the caravan analogy (I prefer convoys myself - far more redolent of Britain at her best) Polly's assumption is that the fast camels will always be fast and the slow ones will always be slow. Any study of social history will show that this is simplistic and so overflowing with wrongness that we are in danger of getting stains on the carpet.

Certainly some people, a very small number, do remain at the front all their lives - so bloody what? Good luck to them. And some, an equally small number, remain forever stuck right at the back - these people do need a helping hand.

But for the vast majority, we bimble along in the middle of the crowd. Sometimes we are a bit ahead of most and sometimes we lag a bit behind. What these people need isn't more "help"; that actually hinders social mobility. They just need to be left alone to carry on at their own pace.

To continue the caravan analogy (badly - I really do better with boats) we need to design lead reins we can attach to the few genuinely slow camels and then attach them to the largest number of the other camels possible so that each is dragging only a small extra load. To keep the load small we have to learn to detatch the reins once the slow camels are back up to speed.

And the racing camels? Let them race ahead. Some might get to journey's end faster, but a lot will burn out and a lot more will be picked off by the bandits along the way. If they are lucky camels they will be gathered up by the caravan as it bimbles past them.

Anonymous said...

16 Words-My home was a basement and when I passed it in the company of friends I would not acknowledge it.

My house was a birds nest and we shared it with a smelly old crow. My clothes were made of twigs and =all I had for breakfast was an acorn with some spit . We were so poor that my parents had to feed us to each other to stay alive. I dreamt of the day we had a basement I used to sigh and yearn at its cheerful crackling naked bulb .You youngsters don`t know your born

Anonymous said...

Anonymous @ 3:35pm:

A couple of years ago I started my first job on 12k pa.

Grew up never having a birthday party, the shiny new toys or the summer holiday.

I have never considered myself poor.

I may never earn enough to own a property of my own. Am I poor?

In my view, poverty is not lacking all the nice things in life - it is the lack of human necessities.

Anonymous said...

It is not a good idea for the UK to travel at the pace of the slowest camel. We need a fast camel train and rehab for those that cannot keep up.

Snafu said...

If we are living in a meritocracy (as Tony Blair wishes), there will be a group of people in the bottom decile of society struggling to survive without merit!

Anonymous said...

"What is your view of children who don't get to go on a summer holiday"

I haven't been on a summer holiday the past few years and it hasn't made me feel poor. Nor do I own Sky TV, an X-Box or go swimming regularly.

Why exactly are these people in relative poverty entitled to our money? What have they done to earn it? Why should everyone be expected to own Sky TV? Why should I be forced to hand money over to these people?

Anonymous said...

Iain posts: "Of course there are children, and indeed many adults, who are impoverished. No one denies that, and everyone would agree that it is a prime duty of the State to lift those people out of poverty,"

No, Iain. The prime duty of the state is to get out of the way and let the wealth creators do what they do best - create jobs.

The socialists have not only destroyed the social fabric of this country, but they have robbed the poorer sector of aspirations. Rubbish education, no apprenticeships, no social skills,no understanding of what holds a civil society together - i,e, share values and a sense of community, no small business opportunities. This communist garbage needs to be taken to a huge tip and dumped wholesale. Anything less than completely discarding this philosophy is robbing young people of an opportunity to get a foothold and better themselves.

Anonymous said...

It's not for you guys, but there is a left wing critique of the relativist view of poverty.

This is that by endlessly raising the line as to what is poverty it ensures that the West continues to have an imperial and exploitative relationship with the less developed world. We become concerned for people who, in the grand scheme of things, are actually quite well off compared to the rest of the world.

In order to help them, resources are diverted from much more needy places. This is because there is a ceiling on how much redistribution can be done. Gordon may have raised the limit, but there is still a limit.

In this scenario, in order to sustain the UK level of prosperity we will require ever cheaper third world goods in order to subsidise the increased generosity to the newly defined UK poor.

The gap between rich and poor will become wider and the need for charity greater - not the preferred solution

Anonymous said...

I think an interesting point here is, although the Blair government has destroyed so much aspiration and ambition by the deadening effect of a communist education and leaching ambition out of young minds, the one person, other than public schools and independent schools, furthering the cause of entrepreneurship is Prince Charles.

He's worked away at his Prince's Trust for decades, raised tens (maybe it's hundreds) of millions by giving talks and attending luncheons and dinners where his presence produced large donations - as well as donating his own money, personally sits in on many of the interviews with young people and reads over their business plans, and has distributed vast amounts of cash to help young people with viable business ideas but no bank credit, to get started. Sometimes only tiny amounts are needed for someone with an idea and confidence in himself/herself to get going on a successful enterprise and making it a success.

Interesting that the socialists don't understand the drive of human ambition and aspiration and a prince of the realm does.

Anonymous said...


You're right to say that the socialists have not, can not and probably will not recognise the same basic spark that HRH Charlie did. But can you iamgine what a clusterf**k they'd make of it if they did?

The Prince's Trust raises and then donates money fast and with minimal bureaucracy. Any statist attempt to mimic this would involve at least three ministers, ten junior ministers, a London office with a staff of a couple of thousand, regional offices, local offices. Then you'd have the Better Giving Agency just to make sure the department functioned according to ever changing targets. And of course each office would need minority inclusivity officers attached from other departments. Cultural and diversity trainers. Safety officers. Lifestyle guidance councillors. Worklife Balance Co-ordinators. Oh and the Treasury would impose an auditting department just to make sure that no one was nicking the tea money.

They'd spend ten times what HRH raises simply on departmental running costs.

Anonymous said...

ispystrangers, 1:09pm, got in ahead of me, the tinker. A 'media salary' is huge - not a median salary at all. Which causes me to think: does anyone know how much a Dimbleby pulls in a year? Or Mdm Toynbee, for that matter?

Harry Barnes said...

It is one thing for the Conservatives to steal back New Labour's free market clothing, but it is quite another for it to steal Old Labour clothing on the issue of "relative poverty". What will be seen as the mechanism for overcoming relative poverty ? One clear avenue is a move to progressive forms of taxation. Will this be pushed in the Conservative Party and might we soon see the formation of the equivalent of the Socialist Campaign Group?