Over Challenge Poverty Week we have explored some of the issues related to poverty in the UK – the factors that drive poverty; the impact that poverty and wider inequality can have; how the reliance on surplus food has created a fragile support system ill-equipped to handle the current level of demand; and how austerity targets the poorest in society. But you may have noticed that we have not written anything about the incredible work being done by hard-working and dedicated volunteers to support people who are suffering the effects of poverty. This work is commendable and unfortunately is all too necessary. But happy stories of communities rallying to support each other will not stop poverty. It’s fantastic for people to come together to support others in hard times, but it’s a short-term fix. We have to keep pushing for a real solution to the underlying problem – extreme inequality.
In this post we look at why charity is not the answer to poverty. Poverty does not need to exist in the UK. We can have a better society.
The UK has high levels of income and wealth inequality – this is the difference in income and wealth between the richest and poorest in society. In 2018, the richest fifth of society’s income was more than 12 times the amount earned by the poorest fifth. This unequal distribution of wealth is the number one cause of poverty and the situation is actually getting worse. In the last 5 years the average income of the richest fifth of our society has increased by almost 5%. In contrast, the income of the poorest fifth has actually fallen.
The situation is even more extreme if you look at wealth – the total amount of money and assets owned by individuals. Data collected by the Office for National Statistics in 2016 showed that the richest 10th of households hold 44% of all the UK’s wealth. Whereas the bottom half of the population own just 9%. Read that again, and let it sink in for a minute. In fact, if you’re like me and statistics make your eyes glaze over then how about a little visual aid:
The UK’s charity sector is unique amongst most similar wealthy countries. It’s well established and covers a diverse range of activities, many of which are often provided by the state in other countries, or are unnecessary due to adequate social provision. There are many charities in the UK that work hard in difficult circumstances to support those in poverty. They have to navigate a system that promotes competition due to limited funding. They are restricted by the Charity Commission and funding bodies who regulate what they can do and what they can say. Despite the good work being done by many passionate people, charity cannot change the unequal distribution of wealth that drives poverty. All charity can do is work to alleviate some of the symptoms that present in our communities – homelessness, hunger, isolation, poor physical and mental health to name a few – but even that is an increasingly impossible task.
A society without poverty is not only possible, it is essential. We are living in a world driven by greed from the top. We are organised into work units, producing profit for the few. Often our jobs are “bullshit jobs”. We are cogs in a global system. We overproduce “stuff”, it gets shunted around the globe and we consume it to soothe ourselves. In our society, we are increasingly isolated. We are alienated from each other, from nature, and from ourselves. Life is fast, confusing and stressful. Those who can afford it can get ever more “stuff” as a distraction. The problem of those who haven’t got enough is painful to see and often we turn our eyes away from children being sent to school hungry, pensioners dying because they cannot heat their homes. We cannot afford to live like this any more. Our planet cannot tolerate it, our mental health cannot tolerate it, our increasingly divided societies cannot take it. The system is at breaking point.
The answer is simple but hard to achieve. We need greater equality, we need to replace greed with honour, wisdom and responsibility. We need our economic model to serve the wellbeing of people and planet rather than striving for more growth, more “stuff”. A fairer distribution of wealth would transform our society. Imagine a society free from the fear and anxiety of not being able to pay the bills, not having your basic needs met. Imagine the growth and creativity that would spring up if we unleashed curiosity and creativity through funding lifelong education and youth clubs and arts centres and sport. Imagine properly funded family support, stress taken off the shoulders of parents, and challenging and interesting opportunities for teenagers to drive them to aspire – to become scientists and musicians, farmers and engineers, doctors and nurses. Everyone could be supported to meet their potential, crime would reduce, our physical and mental health as a nation would benefit. We would finally put the resources and the best minds behind the urgent need to tackle climate change, to save our good society. And of course no one would need to rely on charity to meet their basic needs. This can be a reality, but it won’t come to us on its own. Take action.
Write to your MP. We’ve created a handy template you can use: