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Wednesday, 8 December, 1999, 19:08 GMT
Poverty: Whose line is it anyway?

Locked out: The poor are excluded from society
A hardened cynic in the poverty debate might view it like this - bleeding heart liberals in the red corner, cold-hearted capitalists in the blue.

Both sides have come out fighting with the release of another new report into poverty and social exclusion in the UK.

The report in question, commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, has found poverty increased during the first year of the Labour government.

The number of people living below the government-recognised poverty line is 14 million. Those on "very low incomes" number eight million.

The difference between then and now is enormous

Norman Dennis
It's a grim picture for those in the red corner, and one that reflects badly on the Labour government, although the report notes that it is too early to judge the impact of its policies.

But critics take issue with the findings. We've never had it so good, they say, pointing to Department of Social Security statistics that reveal real household income rose 40% between 1979 and 1997.

The problem with the report is that it judges poverty on a scale relative to incomes as a whole.

The gap between low and medium income is growing, so those at the bottom are judged to be poor, even though they are not going hungry and enjoy many material benefits, such as televisions, videos and microwave ovens.

Welfare is a way of life for many
In 1997/98 the national average weekly income before housing costs was 309. The report found 10.7 million people living on half or less than half that amount - a government-recognised poverty line.

Whether they are all poor or not perhaps depends on your politics. The red corner would argue that poverty is as much a state of mind as money.

So when people's expectations are raised by the material wealth of society in general, but they cannot afford to be included, they are considered poor.

Martin Barnes, director of the Child Poverty Action Group, was one of many who were scathing on the issue.

"It is ironic that the report is published the same week that the Stock Market reaches new highs and when some people in the City are expecting Christmas bonuses of more than a million pounds," he said.

Victim mentality

But in its Wednesday leader, the Daily Telegraph turned the argument on its head. The widening gap between the bottom 10% of society and the average is not an indicator of worsening poverty but testament to "rising prosperity".

Norman Dennis, author of The Invention of Permanent Poverty, says the Rowntree report and the raft of other poverty reports, perpetuate a victim mentality among those on lower incomes.

"Poverty is a relative thing, but we have got to keep the perspective that the very poorest are well off in historical terms and world terms," he says.

He recalls Britain in the 1930s, the decade before William Beveridge's landmark report on poverty which inspired the modern welfare system that exists today.

"When I went to grammar school in the 1930s I was one of only 99 children to do so in Sunderland. University was unheard of. Today there are about 15,000 university places in Sunderland."

Hand-up not hand out

"In terms of wealth and opportunity, the difference between then and now is enormous."

Mr Dennis, a member of the Labour Party, argues that prior to the 1970s, people were expected to work their way out of poverty.

Since then they have looked to the government to provide the lift and this has engendered a dependency culture.

"The working class used to be proud to work their own way up. Now there is no feeling of being working class among those at the bottom of the pile so they don't want to work their way out."

But how many would take his argument all the way and turn back the clock to a pre-Beveridge Britain?

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08 Dec 99 | UK
Q and A: What is poverty?
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