Saturday, 23 August 2008

What is poverty?

With food and fuel prices rising by huge amounts we will hear much over the coming months about poverty and it will all concentrate on money. It is quite right that money should feature high on the poverty agenda because most definitions of poverty look at nothing else. My intention is to address the monetary side of poverty in a series of ramblings over the next few weeks, but today I want to challenge the concept that a lack of money is an adequate definition of poverty.

Lack of money is a common theme in politicians' rantings whenever problems arise in the inner cities. Many examples can be given: teenagers terrorise a council housing estate, the child of a teenage mother starves to death, children are found to be eating burgers and chips as their main meal seven days a week and so it goes on. Often, the first thing that is said is to blame lack of money. If that really is to blame, an increase in income for the people concerned would prevent the problems being repeated. I doubt very much that that is the case. I can explain why by looking at the particular examples I have given.

When a gang of teenagers terrorises an estate you can be sure of one thing. There are far more teenagers living on the estate who do not join the rampage. When a child dies in horrible circumstances you can be sure that many more children of teenage mothers are being cared for very well. For every child eating burgers and chips every day you can be sure there will be many eating sensible balanced meals. The well-behaved teenagers will not have parents markedly wealthier than the parents of the hooligans, the teenage mothers of living children will not be markedly wealthier than the mother of the dead child, the parents of the children on balanced diets will not be markedly wealthier than the parents of those fed burgers and chips. It is not money that differentiates between those who behave well and those who behave badly, it is values.

That is not to say that values are absolute things, they can be affected by all sorts of external influences. Peer pressure can persuade a teenager to join in with the terrorising gang even though he would never dream of threatening anyone if acting alone. A bad example can temporarily override a strongly held opinion that something is wrong. Money can also play a part, as in the case of many poor people who steal goods from shops when they would not do so if they could afford to buy them. Of course that raises the question why they chose to steal when others would just go without and the answer is simple, the values of those who steal are less powerful than the values of those who go without. It must not be overlooked, however, that financial poverty is only a cause of theft when the theft is necessary to be able to provide the basics of life (housing, heating, food, clothes) which, in my view, is never the case in this country.

I do not suggest for one moment that life is easy for those on low incomes. They have little if any opportunity for discretionary spending, the vast majority of their money has to go on housing, heating, food and clothes. I can understand why someone in that position who has become accustomed over many years to having two packets of cigarettes a week will buy smuggled smokes at £3.50 rather than paying £5.80 for exactly the same product in the shops, the difference of £2.30 a packet is significant to them. What I cannot understand, and do not accept, is that a lack of money causes people to behave in a way that is harmful to others. Such behaviour is a consequence of the people concerned not having good values.

There is another non-monetary aspect to poverty. So far I have discussed only poverty of values. Values are taught by our parents, our schools and others who have had a significant effect on our lives. Those influences generally apply in our early years and they provide us with the individual moral standards we carry into adulthood. When in adulthood, most people have children and they hope their children will learn the values they learned. They also hope their children will receive a good education to give the opportunities they had to build a career or start a business or have a steady job. Sadly we seem to have reached a position in this country in which education is viewed by government as a means for social engineering and a statistical resource rather than a means for developing minds and teaching skills. Unless schools allow each pupil to develop to the best of his or her ability they fail in their central purpose.

These days the curriculum is crammed with touchy-feely eco-multicultural nonsense. Children are taught that Nelson Mandela is more important than Isaac Newton, Al Gore more important than Winston Churchill, rights more important than duties and equality more important than quality. There are so many tests and league tables that it is more important to get the marginal fail up to a marginal pass than it is to teach the bottom few to read or the top few to excel. One of the greatest successes of schools in the fifties and sixties was to get those from modest backgrounds into the best universities and the most challenging professions. Means tested grants were given to the best students so that their nascent talents could flourish. Naturally some withered, but that will always be the case, those who flourished were able to pursue careers their parents could only have dreamt of, but not now. There is genuine poverty of opportunity because state schools have to follow political diktats.

Lack of money is the third type of poverty, third in my list and third in importance. If you have no values it does not matter how much money you have you will harm others throughout your life. Poverty of opportunity condemns future generations to under-achievement and, necessarily, condemns the country to fail to benefit from their talents. Monetary poverty is not a barrier to high values and should not be a barrier to good education. I will return to various aspects and effects of monetary poverty in future musings, today I have endeavoured to explain why I believe that poverty of values and poverty of opportunity are more detrimental than monetary poverty.

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