Thursday, 30 May 2013

You've Got To Pick A Pocket Or Two, Boys - Part 4 - Down and Out

I want you to think about the time in your life when you were at your poorest. It's a relative concept, so it's different for everyone.

For us it was 1984-1985. We had two young children, and Martin's income simply wasn't enough. After we had paid the bills such as the mortgage we were left with an amount of money that wasn't really enough for food, so we went very short. We were also cold in winter as we had to ration the coal we used on the fire. But eventually I got a job, which fixed that, so we didn't suffer for too long, and of course compared to many people in the world, it didn't count as being poor at all. We had everything we needed, it was just "tight".

The important thing was that we were working poor. We did have an income, albeit not quite enough. We also did have a roof over our heads, and we were at least able to keep on top of that. We made it our priority. We went without luxuries, food came before entertainment. Had it been these days, for example, we'd have cancelled our internet service. That didn't exist at the time, so we simply never went anywhere. Martin cycled to work.

I am glad we had that experience. Nobody was harmed by it, and it gave us a tiny glimpse into the poverty experience. Enough to know I didn't like it, that's for sure.

Also enough to know it wasn't really our fault. We hadn't done anything "wrong". It was just that a tradesman's pay was not enough to support a young family, and that is where we begin to find definitions of relative poverty. Although we are all used to it now, the idea of a family needing two incomes to make ends meet is fairly modern and it looks like it's here to stay.

We can argue that modern expectations are excessive, that perhaps many families actually live beyond their means, and it's easy to pinpont an anecdotal example. We all know someone who claims to be short of money but in fact is regularly buying unnecessary things, who effectively wastes money. Forget that. What is a reasonable expectation of lifestyle, for ordinary, working-class people?

I believe it is as follows:

To be able to afford to live in a home that is not shared by another family. It may be small, it may be humble, but you shouldn't need to take in lodgers to cover the rent. (Of course, if you choose to, power to you, and bless you, it helps both of you out). If you own it, you should be able to afford to keep it, and maintain it.

To be able to heat that home in winter, cool it in summer if you live in a hot climate, and have all basic services to it, such as power, water, and, yes, a telephone. That is an essential service these days. TV, internet, etc are not essential, but a basic service for both is not outrageous. Just optional.

To be able to eat enough in quantity and quality to maintain good health. In places where fresh produce costs more than junk food, I would define poverty by being forced to eat the latter, even if it is sufficient calories. Being forced to eat food that is bad for you is an incredible societal wrong.

To be able to replace worn clothing and pay for transportation, so that the means to keeps a job doesn't become an issue. We are past the times when having shoes on your feet was considered "enough". Many employers won't look at you if you don't own a car. This seems grossly unfair, but there it is. The way cities are laid out often means that affordable housing is some distance from employment. Walking is not always an option. This is actually one of the problems of the modern world that we need to address, because it often becomes a cycle, need a car to get a job, need a job to get a car. Of course this applies even more so in rural areas.

Now that is as basic as it gets. Is this a reality for most people? Frankly no, and in many parts of the world it would actually be a luxury situation. It is sometimes a luxury in the west, and that shouldn't be happening. It doesn't need to happen. There is enough to go around. The reason there are many, many families unable to achieve those four basic areas, despite having jobs, is that there are a minority of people who have far more money than a person can even count, and they plan on keeping it.

What happened? Were the poor people foolish? Well, they did sit back and let it happen! Shall we blame them?

No. You will never hear me blaming Fred for being an ordinary working guy just trying to make ends meet. The world is run by Freds. Without them we'd still be living in caves. The Freds toiled the fields for centuries so that others could eat, and concentrate on other pursuits that gave us the modern world, and if you have any doubt about that, I suggest you go and study some social history. The world that we enjoy was made possible by the labour of ordinary people. They may never have invented anything, because they were too busy.

And, as we've stated elsewhere, they were too busy to rise up, and even if they had, would their lot have improved? Maybe temporarily. If you look back, in fact, the only time that the employers were forced to pay more was when there was a shortage of employees, such as after the Black Death, and that, like it or not, is how things work. All the time there are enough workers bees, they are not valued.

And, let's not pretend otherwise, what is called poor today would have looked very appealing in the 15th century. It's ALWAYS relative. Never forget that. Right now being poor includes not having a telephone service, rather than not having shoes. You cannot compare our modern western world to that of the middle ages, any more than you can to Somalia.

No, the definition of poverty today is measured in annual incomes that would buy a new car. But if it isn't enough to put food on the table, it doesn't matter how much it is. It is not an unreasonable expectation in a modern western nation to be able to EAT. We have moved past that. Or we thought we had. But we clearly haven't moved past kings and serfs. And we really thought we had.

We give them different names these days. We pretend there is no serfdom. We lie! That is exactly the situation we have. We have a small number of people who have money and power, and then everyone else doing their bidding.

What would happen if it was all averaged out? It varies from country to country, obviously, but within the "west" (US, Canada, most of Europe, Australia  etc) each family would have roughly $50,000 a year coming in. After taxes and other obligatory deductions there's a bit more variety of course, but it's in the $20,000-35,000 area. How do you feel about that? Is that enough? Does it cover the four basic areas of need I listed above? It should do.

But, an average of $30,000, after taxes etc, is probably not enough to comfortably cover the cost of living in some cities. And my guess is that there are many of you reading this thinking, hmm, we actually have more take-home pay than that coming in, and we're not rolling in it. If, right now, you have two wage earners in the family, even in pretty humble jobs, you're probably bringing home more than that, and could not really envisage managing on less.

In fact, one reason this equal sharing simply isn't going to happen, is that far too many people, and not just those in the billionaire's club, would have to reduce their standard of living.

But this is an average, you see. To get an average, obviously, you have some earning far more, and some far less. Far less.

In fact, in 2011 one and a half million families in the US, for example, had an earned income of less than $1,000 per annum. How can you live like that? Well, you can't, obviously, and these people would qualify for welfare, but having been given support of this kind, what is the family's income then? That varies dramatically from place to place, so it's best to consider percentages, and it is generally around half of what is considered to be a poverty income. In some cases welfare income is just 20% of what is considered to be poverty.

Let's just put that in a plainer way. People are trying to live on one-fifth of what they need. In the modern western world. Not in Bangladesh. Not in Victorian times. Where you live. Now.

Deduce from this whatever you want.


  1. In my own life, the most cash-poor time was the period when I was the sole bread winner and we lived first in the tipi, then in the log cabin. No modcons. One toddler. We also had no debt, were initially surrounded by other people doing more or less the same thing, and we owned the land free and clear. We were also young and healthy, and living in a decent society with a safety net. The lifestyle was also a Choice. That is probably more important than anything else. Thank DoC social services were not as invasive as they became later. The ability to distinguish between factor s we are responsible for, and those we are not, is vital and often lacking. I have blogged a bit about this, don't feel like looking it up now. It is the middle of the night a d I am playing with the nexus.

    1. I recently read a book called about an English teacher who went to live in Mongolia for a year, to teach at a school in a remote village. They reneged on promises to pay her, and she lived on virtually nothing, but stayed anyway. But it was HER CHOICE, and she knew there was an end to it. Yes, choice is a massive factor.