Monday, 20 September 2010

It's the povertyism, stupid I seem to recall Charles Dickens wrote in a letter, 'Oh for a world without an ism!' The extension does make for ugly language, but that's no excuse for not having a public debate about povertyism. To pick up from my last post, I think it's time to make a lot more noise about disrimination against poor people. I was far from being the only person incensed by Nick Clegg's recent remark that the welfare system should not be "a giant cheque written by the State to compensate the poor for their predicament". If I fix on that remark, it is because it is a blatant example of embedded prejudice at a high level, expressed by the wealthy and powerful towards those who are not. And there's a widespread selective deafness at work here. More than 40% of adults claim that there is ‘very little poverty’ in Britain today, an Oxfam blog post tells us. And a recent Oxfam briefing paper points out: 'People living in poverty in the UK make a vital contribution to the economy and society through unpaid caring and community work. But public attitudes prevail that people on low incomes – and particularly those on benefits – are ‘scroungers’ who are to blame for their own poverty.' The authoritative Damian Killeen describes it like this: 'Public attitude surveys... reveal a widespread resentment of people living in poverty. Better-off people may often disapprove of the fact that many poor people share the same tastes and consumerist aspirations as they do. This can extend to a denial that poverty exists and hostility towards the costs of providing people with opportunities to escape their poverty.' This plays out painfully in people's experience of judgemental attitudes in public space and in the ways they get treated by agencies. One example Killeen gives illustrates how embedded povertyism has become in our systems: 'One mother of five was offered £36 per week to meet her family’s needs after leaving her job to protect her children from an abusive father. She said she thought she was being punished by the system when she believed she was putting the interest of her children first. She kept her family together by selling the children’s toys in order to buy food.' Should we be talking about class discrimination? We've learned to identify racial discrimination at last and are supported legally in doing that. Even age discrimination has finally been recognised, if not yet brought to order. But I think we'll continue to struggle to identify class discrimination, partly because class is now so fractured and far fewer people self-classify in the established categories any more. That's why I think it's right to talk about poverty discrimination and to make more noise about it in the run-up to the coalition government's spending review (20 October). JRF's report on Understanding attitudes to tackling economic inequality, Killeen's paper mentioned above, and Oxfam's more recent Something for nothing report seem to be the starting-points. Does it matter that we don't...

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