liv: cast iron sign showing etiolated couple drinking tea together (argument)
[personal profile] liv
[personal profile] ewt wanted to know your take on poverty in the UK and elsewhere and what, if anything, you think should be done about it (and by whom).

This is the kind of good question that gets to the heart of where I come from politically. I suppose basically I think some amount of poverty or at least economic inequality is inevitable, if people ever have the freedom to make bad decisions at all. I also think a lot of UK and global poverty right now is being deliberately orchestrated, and what I really want is for the governments of rich countries to stop doing that, which I think would improve things a lot before we get to more positive anti-poverty initiatives.

So yes, the first thing that should be "done about" poverty in the UK is to end punitive benefit sanctions. I am agnostic about whether the absolute amount of benefits should be raised, but people should be paid their entitlements regularly and reliably, and not be made to jump through ridiculous hoops. I can just about see an argument for making unemployment benefit conditional on job hunting, but that needs to be implemented in an actually fair way. That means not punishing people for failing to apply for jobs that don't exist, and not forcing people to take completely unsuitable and insecure jobs rather than waiting a few weeks longer for a decent job with prospects that actually matches their skillset. The point of having an unemployment benefit at all is to give people a cushion so that they can take the best job, not necessarily the first job. And there should absolutely not be sanctions for any other benefit; sickness and disability benefits should not require people to jump through hoops at all, and housing benefit should be purely calculated on income and not on behaviour.

But even more importantly than that, there needs to be an end to the culture of sanctioning people who are in fact doing absolutely everything they can to apply for any jobs going, and people who are plainly too ill to work, in order to meet secret targets for benefit sanctions. It is becoming more and more apparent that job centre staff are rewarded for making "mistakes" that lead to people losing their benefits for weeks on end and punished for being actually fair to benefit recipients. If sanctions must be applied at all, say to the very rare few people who are trying to cheat the system, those sanctions need to be in a format that doesn't drive people into poverty. Nobody should ever be sanctioned such that they have literally no money coming in for weeks or months, which seems to be happening more and more lately. At worst cheats should be fined a certain proportion of their benefits over a payment term long enough to be manageable; if benefits are meant to be at the minimum level it's possible to live on, (and there's a strong argument that these days they fall well below that), then obviously it is not possible for someone on benefits to save up enough to live for months with no income. Starving and being made homeless are not proportionate punishments for minor financial fraud; even the most terrible criminals have the human right to adequate food and shelter.

I've seen so many statistics showing that it's benefit sanctions plus bureaucratic delays in benefit payments that are the biggest contributors to people needing to use foodbanks and payday loans. And this is an entirely avoidable cause of poverty! Even if the treasury doesn't have enough money to properly support those who need it, (which I'm not convinced is true, I think it's a matter of political priorities), getting rid of the sanctions would help a lot. It would save all the money currently spent on trying to catch people out for cheating, when cheating is a tiny proportion of the cost of benefits anyway (and I suspect quite a large proportion of what's classed as cheating is unintentional, it's people failing to understand what has become a hugely unwieldy system.) And more importantly, it would save the costs to society caused by actively driving more and more people into extreme poverty. It seems to me an obvious advantage to society if we support people for a while so that they can stay in their homes and sort their lives out, and have a reasonable chance of eventually getting back into employment and becoming net contributors to the economy.

There are other causes of poverty which I think are primarily driven by deliberate policies, not by individual people's bad choices. The fact that the government keeps acting to prop up house prices, even though house prices are ridiculously over-inflated, especially in the south-east, instead of acting to return house prices to a more affordable level. The way that rights for both tenants and employees are being undermined, meaning that there are more and more people in employment who nevertheless aren't earning enough to live on, and people who are decent, reliable tenants are losing their homes for ridiculous reasons like revenge evictions. The austerity programme in general; barring people from access to legal representation, education and even, increasingly, healthcare, does not save the economy nearly as much money as it costs by driving people further into poverty.

Beyond ceasing to expend political effort on making more and more people poor, what should we positively be doing? This is where I start to get uncertain. I am very ambivalent about redistributive economic policy, my ideal economic model is that people should contribute to the infrastructure of the country where they live, and beyond that should have the right to keep what they earn. I generally care more about raising the floor, the economic status of the poorest in society, than I do about narrowing the gap between the rich and the poor. If everybody had enough to eat and a safe place to live and access to healthcare and education, it would not bother me that society also includes multi-millionaires with more money than they know what to do with.

So, who should be doing something about those who have less? I'm right-wing enough that I don't think the answer is necessarily the state. I kind of liked in theory the idea of the Tories' Big Society, sharing support for those in need between charities and volunteer orgs, the private sector, and the state, but in fact Conservative policy is not only not helping, but actively preventing anyone from doing anything to relieve poverty, like the threats made against the Trussell Trust, closing down Remploy, making it harder and harder for charities and third sector organizations to survive.

In a lot of ways I want to see people helped to be able to support themselves, for example with education and training, rather than simply being given money in ways that can lead to a culture of dependency and also is a bottomless pit, because it doesn't fix the underlying reason why they needed money in the first place. But I also feel that society needs to be able to carry those people who can't perform enough labour to cover their costs of living (which is everybody for at least a third of their lives and many people for more than that). Children, the elderly, the long-term sick, people whose contributions to society are more spiritual than measurable in terms of producing stuff or "making money" should all be regarded as a collective responsibility, and the people who care for them should be rewarded for the valuable work they're doing. Whether that's in terms of directly paying a salary or providing infrastructural support or some combination, I'm not sure, but it shouldn't be just dumped onto women with few economically valued skills. A lot of poverty is caused by parents and carers who are busy doing valuable work and therefore don't have time to earn money in paid employment being abandoned, and their labour is a hidden but important part of the economy which should be recognized.

One thing I'd like to see is organizations with enough clout to make a difference getting seriously Biblical on usurers. It may be that the only way to get rid of exploitative, high-interest loans is legislation, but a serious boycott and protest campaign might do some good, as might providing ethical lending alternatives. I'm impressed with what the Church of England under ++Welby is doing about this, for example.

As for international poverty, I am no expert on it but I do see a lot of instances of rich countries taking deliberate action to keep poor countries poor. Everything from unfair and protectionist trade agreements to actual military invasion of anywhere that looks like it might be an economic rival to the US or might be developing a political system other than a kind of capitalism artificially skewed against regions that aren't already rich. Those things should stop and that would again do a lot for poverty, even ahead of any positive commitment to international aid. In particular rich countries should stop trying to call in debt from the developing world; most of those countries only "owe" us money because they were forced into unfair loan arrangements in the post-colonialist era, so we have no moral right to it. And the difference it makes to rich countries to be able to collect interest on these unfair loans is tiny, whereas these payments are really hobbling the countries that have to pay it and preventing them from growing their economies. Demilitarization and debt forgiveness are my number one priorities for foreign policy, basically, not that I have any parties to vote for who are interested in pursuing such a foreign policy.

Beyond that my guess is that what's needed internationally is a mixture of education, including improved access to contraception, and development of technology which would allow regions to make more out of few resources. I'm biased in favour of education and scientific advances anyway, so it's not surprising that I favour that as a means of addressing poverty. But agricultural and energy technology, plus logistical strategies to be able to distribute things like food and other vital physical resources to remote areas, plus cheaper medicines and cheap, sustainable housing, I think would all be likely to do more long-term good than charities or governments generously offering a tiny proportion of the wealth from the industrialized world to poorer areas.

So that's what I think should be done, but I don't see any way to get there from here, there are too many powerful interests relying on continued poverty and increasing desperation both in the UK and internationally.

Feel free to tell me why I'm wrong, I am not hugely emotionally attached to these views so I'm happy for this post to trigger a debate!

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