Telegraph columnist says British poverty isn’t so bad – we have indoor toilets!

Author James Bartholomew says we 'care too much' about inequality


The Daily Telegaph has run a piece today which we can safely file under: ‘You know you have a Tory government when…’

And you know you have a Tory government when the newspapers start telling you to stop worrying about poverty.

Today’s article by James Bartholomew, author of The Welfare of Nations, notes that ‘Labour politicians, columnists for the Guardian and the Independent, representatives of charities such as Oxfam’ and so on, say poverty in Britain is ‘a major and even growing problem’: ‘Very rarely does anyone on radio or television dare challenge this idea.’ So he daringly challenges it.

Mr Bartholomew, (who said his shares received a 7 per cent boost after the Tory election win), argues that what we now call poverty is not the same as what we called poverty in the 19th century. He adds that the modern usage of the term was invented by left-wing academics in the 1960s (ah yes) and picked up by Leftists ever since for its ’emotive power’.

Now, it’s probably no surprise to readers of the Telegraph that poverty is a relative term (as it was in the past, incidentally), and is distinct from ‘absolute poverty‘. As Bartholomew notes, the most common definition of poverty has the line at 60 per cent of median income, with adjustment for family size. And since the median income in 2011/12 was £23,000, he continues, this means to be living in poverty in Britain, you have to earn less than £14,000 a year.

Even someone as daring as Mr Bartholomew has to admit this is ‘certainly a low income indeed’. But he notes that most households have televisions, mobile phones and use the internet daily, so they can’t be all that poor.

However this is a weak and superficial measure as compared to, say, how much money people have to spend after tax and bills. There are also indirect indicators such as reliance on emergency food (over a million visits last year) or malnutrition (up 19 per cent in 2014, with increased hospital visits for the Victorian blight of Rickets) and general health.

Simply pointing to possession of certain prized consumer goods doesn’t cut it, and is more likely an indicator of the low price of those consumer goods. (Mobile phones are quite cheap nowadays, and internet access is free at schools, workplaces and public libraries.)

Still, Bartholomew trudges on:

“Overall, the typical person in modern poverty has access to a mobile phone and lives in a household with a television, an inside lavatory, electricity and probably access to the internet.

By all means, observers can call this poverty. But it would have been unrecognisable to [19th century novelist] Flora Thompson. It is riches beyond their dreams for those I have met in a Masai Mara village in Kenya who live in mud huts with not a single one of the above.”

‘An inside lavatory’! Aren’t you lucky? And electricity too! It comes to something when a columnist in the Telegraph has the chutzpah to tell the poor that if they don’t live in a ‘mud hut’ they’ve never had it so good.

In fact, 19.3 million people – a third of the UK population – lived below the poverty line at some point between 2010 and 2013, according to the Office for National Statistics. 4.6 million people lived in persistent income poverty in 2013, a proportion of 7.8 percent of the population. More than two million children are living with families who are struggling to pay for food, clothing and heating.

This is obviously embarrassing for a government claiming to represent ‘working people’. So we can expect more columns along these lines.

Bartholomew shows his cards as he concludes:

“The redefinition of poverty was a bit of a con-trick by the Left. It has led us to care far too much about inequality and not enough about rising prosperity.”

This cuts with the post-election grain, whereby a defeat for Ed Miliband consigns any talk of inequality to a figurative Siberian labour camp. Ironically for the likes of Bartholomew, inequality will matter so long as ‘rising prosperity’ for some is at the expense of relative poverty for others, and fails (as it always does) to ‘trickle down’.

The real con-trick is is trying to tell people they aren’t as hungry as they feel.

Adam Barnett is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow MediaWatch on Twitter


Read more: 

One million foodbank visits, but not one story in the Tory press

Daily Mail’s racial scaremongering on ‘Filipino killer nurse’ undermines its work exposing him

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42 Responses to “Telegraph columnist says British poverty isn’t so bad – we have indoor toilets!”

  1. 2catlady

    At present I have two inside loos. Is this guy suggesting that if I and mine become unemployed in future we will need to rip them both out and put a privy in the garden?

  2. northernlass

    Recently I have been visited by children (well my kids have but you get my drift) who do not recognise basic fruits & vegetables, Who asked if they could charge the families mobile phone at ours as they have no leccy at their house, who are constantly hungry and ask me if they can have something to eat every time they visit,whose tv has been taken away after they could no longer make payments, and whose phone and internet have been turned off. Oh and each of the families these children come from have at least one parent working!!!! Often doing more than one job and working unsociable hours. I have literally cried in the last 24 hours at the state of things for some of the children on our estate.

  3. Dave Stewart

    only if you claim that you are poor otherwise I think the suggestion is you would be lying.

  4. James Chilton

    Mrs Thatcher said there is no such thing as society. Perhaps this Tory government will soon be announcing that there’s no such thing as poverty.

  5. Bosun Higgs

    If you have ever lived in a really poor country, as I have, it does make you tend to think that the principal cause of poverty in the UK is incompetence.

  6. Cole

    This guy appears to be an ex City banker who is involved with the hard right loon tanks the Adam Smith Institute and IEA. It’s the sort of daft rubbish you’d expect from these people (‘I saw some jolly poor chaps on my safari in Africa’).

  7. ali salmon

    I hope that awful man fall on his arse and needs help at some point, and I reallly hope he doesn’t get it.

  8. Matthew Blott

    Whose incompetence?

  9. Graham Turvill

    The man is another ridiculous posh boy dickhead, let’s hope his shares dive and the telegraph gets bought by mirror group ,

  10. Ramlih Malcowitz

    Haha, literally aping Fox News and it’s “THE DAMN POORS HAVE TELEVISIONS AND FRIDGES!!” from years back.
    Good to see some folks wanting to turn the UK into some sort of neo-feudal state with the worst elements of both itself and the US.

  11. Bosun Higgs

    Well, first the incompetence of parents and teachers, who fail to prepare children for adulthood. Then, the incompetence of those children when they are grown up, their inability to work out what they have to offer society, how to organise their day, how to manage a budget, how to read, write or add up, how to avoid being conned, how to keep house, how to form and maintain personal relationships, how to keep appointments, how to work and so on.

  12. Dark_Heart_of_Toryland

    So nothing to do with the self-serving incompetence of the bankers who brought the economy to its knees, and had to bailed with vast wodges of government cash? And nothing to do with the ideologically-driven incompetence and sheer spite of the Coalition government then?

  13. Bosun Higgs

    Certainly it is connected with the incompetence of the banks and the priority given to them as recipients of welfare handouts. However, the idea that conservatives have some sort of hatred of the poor was originally a piece of propaganda that intelligent people on the Left did not believe, but has now embedded itself as a seemingly ineradicable meme. This has the perverse effect of making people think that having large numbers of people on benefits is sort-of a good thing. My own experience of debt counselling shows me that being poor is much more difficult to manage successfully than being well-off, but also that most poor people are not poor by accident.

  14. Dark_Heart_of_Toryland

    It’s not that the Tories actually hate the poor; rather, they despise them, and are completely lacking in any sort of compassion. The Tories have made a cynical calculation that kicking the poor will be politically advantageous (particularly as the poor are less likely to vote).
    Of course having large numbers of people of benefit is not a Good Thing in itself. But neither is having large numbers of people in shitty jobs with shit pay and shit conditions – and remember, a large part of the benefits bill goes on subsiding businesses which make profits for their shareholders and owners by exploiting their employees, and not paying a living wage.
    You are quite right that most poor people are not poor by accident. However, this is the direct result of an economic system carefully designed to further the interests of the wealthy, at the expense of everybody else.

  15. Bosun Higgs

    Marx’s theory of surplus labour/surplus value and exploitation of workers has been thoroughly exploded by, for instance, Eugen Böhm von Bawerk. The only connection between the value of a good or service (which is what somebody would voluntarily pay for it) and the value of the labour and skill expended in making or providing it (i.e. what an employer will pay for that labour and skill) is the employer’s calculation in pricing that good or service. Otherwise, if employees used great care and skill in making, say, a pair of shoes, but nobody wanted to buy that particular pair, the labour value of the shoes would, with hindsight, be nil and the employees ought to repay all the wages they had received from the employer. Any self-employed person quickly learns that the amount of work and effort he puts in to his or her work is not necessarily commensurate with what money he gets out!
    If benefit payments subsidise employers, rationally one ought to abolish benefit payments to anybody with a job, so as to force employers to increase their pay. In fact, benefit payments subsidise employees. I cannot benefit from money that is paid to you, unless you use it to buy something from me.
    I should like everyone to have a fulfilling job and a good salary. The primary way to achieve that is to maximise economic growth.

  16. Dark_Heart_of_Toryland

    It rather depends what you think the point of economic policy ought to be. If you suppose that the economy should be designed (and I use the word ‘designed’ deliberately) to serve the interests solely of the wealthy, then it follows that employees (and, for that matter, most of the self-employed) should be left to sink. This model – of course – depends on defining a person’s worth solely in terms of the money that can be made out of them in the immediate short-term.

    If, on the other hand, you consider that the economy ought to be designed to ensure a reasonable and sustainable standard of living for most people, and that the wider good of society ought to be taken into account, then obviously, pay needs to be regulated to ensure that businesses pay their employees a decent wage and provide decent conditions.

    On current form, maximising economic growth will, by itself, do very little to provide good jobs or wages. If the economy grows, but all the proceeds of that growth go to the very wealthy, then how do the rest of us benefit? Leaving aside the recession (which was severely excerbated by the Coalition’s thralldom to failed neoliberal doctirines), growth in the economy over the past couple of decades has signally failed to provide fulfilling jobs with good salaries for most people. There is nothing to suggest that this is going to change at all so long as the Tories remain in power (not that the Blairite wing of Labour would offer any improvement).

    And it is self-evident that in-work benefits do subsidise employers; after all, if their work-force cannot afford to the costs of feeding and housing themselves, or transporting themselves to work, then productivity is going to diminish very rapidly.

  17. Jrio

    For a very long time Van Gogh’s skill and labour was valued at very little, but I understand that in recent years that has undergone something of a re-evaluation.

  18. Sharon Taylor

    Why the hell do teachers get brought into everything???

  19. Sally

    The fact is that in our society luxuries are a lot cheaper than necessities. You can have a tv, the internet, a phone line and a smart phone for £40 a month but you can’t feed a family for that, even if you got rid of those things it wouldn’t help.

  20. Dougie Wells

    IDS to poor person: Is that shoes you have on your feet? My, my my! Aren’t you doing well with a Tory Government!

    I think there will be more articles like this trying to convince those who voted Tory – and maybe a few who voted Labour too – that poverty in the UK is not real, somehow, and that they can go about their daily lives with a clear conscience. The motivation behind it is only to convince those voters that any one who is poor is poor as a result of their own laziness and fecklessness, which in turn is used to justify the massive cuts to social security. What will it take to push the pendulum back to a more compassionate and informed society?

  21. Keith M

    He would wouldn’t – what else would you expect from the tory graph.?

  22. Keith M

    brits always need a scapegoat.

  23. headgirlblues

    You could – though they would then count the resulting “spaces” as an extra pair of bedrooms and tax you accordingly

  24. BlueApesRevolt

    Low wages and unemployment have always been weaponised by the Tories in their war against decent living standards for everybody .In the twisted brain rung of a deranged Tory fear of poverty drives us to work harder .I doubt that most senior Tories and their ilk at the Telegraph have ever been in poverty or lived in fear of it .

  25. Denise Adams

    I don’t know if he realises bit, the [email protected]@t, but it’s not the 19th century anymore!Or is he suggesting that only the 1% should benefit from world progress?

  26. Ronald Anderson

    Mud Huts in Scotland WHIT wie oor weather,with or withoot ah Cludgie.

  27. Noel Darlow

    If James Bartholemew insists that we use 19th century standards to judge poverty then perhaps he will also accept 19th century standards of remuneration for his work.

  28. Noel Darlow

    In fact the primary way to achieve that is to maximise economic equality. Economies can expand without benefiting ordinary people. Indeed, since political power always follows wealth, very unequal societies will attempt to do exactly this.

  29. Bosun Higgs

    Had we done that in, say, 1900, we would all now have equal privvies and equal bread-and-scrape. Growth is achievable. Perfect equality is not, and you’d really hate it in practice.

  30. Bosun Higgs

    Because the educational achievement of UK school pupils has slipped badly behind that of many other countries.

  31. Bosun Higgs

    ….which is usually the successful.

  32. Bosun Higgs

    The economy should not be designed at all. That idea is fatuous and leads only to corruption, poverty and violence. I don’t decide what you wear, what music you listen to or who your friends are, and I don’t want you to decide what sort of job I have or what my net income should be.
    There is no reason to suppose that when an economy grows, it only benefits the wealthy. Indeed, that would be impossible, since money is no use until spent, and one person’s spending is another’s income. It used to be thought that economic growth tended to benefit the rich first, but that the poor caught up later; but in fact that only happens in closed, oppressive societies (those with designed economies)
    As for the subsidies, you are still assuming that if benefits were withdrawn, low-paid workers would refuse to work at all.

  33. Dark_Heart_of_Toryland

    The economy has been very deliberately re-designed over the past 35 years. The idea that it somehow naturally evolves, independent of human input – now that really is fatuous. The sorts of jobs that people have and their net incomes – and yes, to an extent, the sort of music they listen to – are increasingly determined by corporate interests, who are not subject to any democratic accountability. Or do you imagine that rapidly increasing numbers of people actually prefer low-paid jobs with no security, or zero-hour contracts? And corruption and poverty are endemic in the UK. The corruption may not be quite so blatant as brown envelopes full of cash, but the swinging door between government and business, the all-pervading influence of lobbyists, and corporate donations to political parties are fundamentally corrupt.

    Average wages have stagnated since at least the turn of the Millenium, whereas the wealthiest have got steadily wealthier. How does this bear your contention that economic growth does not benefit the wealthy disproportionately? The self-serving myth of trickle-down economics is palpably false. In fact, wealth is increasingly being leached upwards. The economy is being run for the benefit for wealthy.

    And if actually bothered to read what I said, you’ll notice that I did not assume that low-paid workers would actually refuse to work – rather, their productivity will fall.

  34. Bosun Higgs

    “The economy has been very deliberately re-designed over the past 35 years.” Well, that explains to crash of 2008. I do not see evidence of Intelligent Design in the progress of the economy. I think it evolves. Most of the things that change the economy have been the result of human actions, indeed, but in such fields as inventing things (computers, the internet, smartphones), changing political systems (the fall of communism), fighting or refraining from fighting wars and allowing or forbidding the free movement of goods, services and people. There is no Unseen Hand directing all this. When governments do try to design an economy (Venezuela, Zimbabwe, North Korea) they goof it up big-time.

    If you took a job with a ‘corporate interest’, they would have to pay whatever salary your skills and experience, compared with other peoples’, demanded. (Unless of course you were a main-board director of a FTSE100 company). They could no more determine that salary unilaterally than they could charge what they liked for their product. This is the ultimate form of democratic control; prices and salaries determined by the market, i.e. the people, rather than by, say, a government functionary with a PPE degree and some demanding friends amongst the producer organisations or trade unions.
    I thought you were implying that low-paid workers without benefits might slow down because they were demotivated. Actually you meant that they would become faint with hunger. Unlikely when the minimum wage would put them at about the 17th decile in terms of average income worldwide?

    Falling average wages: please see figure 7 here:—uk-wages-over-the-past-four-decades.html#tab-UK-Wages-Over-the-Past-Four-Decades

    Figure 5 is interesting too!

  35. Dark_Heart_of_Toryland

    I never said that the economy had been well-designed; it certainly was goofed up big-time.

    And just where is the democratic control in CEOs and financiers helping each other to wodges of cash? What say do the people have over that? I’ve certainly never been consulted.

  36. Noel Darlow

    The need for equality is not some kind of political ideology but a fundamental truth about the way human societies work. On just about every possible metric you care to measure, more equal societies come out on top: drug abuse, education, health outcomes, teenage pregnancies, crime, etc etc. Everyone does better – even the wealthiest, despite having less absolute wealth.

  37. Bosun Higgs

    Let us agree, then, that we need policies that enable growth and encourage the distribution of wealth. Neither is of much use without the other but both processes are, I suggest, natural.

  38. Bosun Higgs

    Sir or Madam, I thank you for your courtesy in an argument about matters where your heartfelt care and concern are evident, but I think we are now merely butting heads. I wish you well.

  39. Dark_Heart_of_Toryland

    Thank you very much! I enjoyed the exchange of views. All the best.

  40. Noel Darlow

    Accepting self-imposed conditions on growth is an incredibly important step. It changes us from a culture led by pirates and spivs dedicated to ruthless exploitation of people, resources and environment into a genuine civilisation.

    I should say I’m basically arguing 2nd-hand Richard Wilkinson’s & Kate
    Pickett’s The Spirit Level (you can google a short TED talk which gives
    the outline).

    I was a YES voter in Scotland’s recent referendum. As an independent country we could conceivably be a little better off or a little worse off but IMO the real opportunity was to create a more equal society. That wouldn’t be a given but definitely a possibility. Counter-intuitively, the research examined in The Spirit Level is telling us that ordinary people can see their lives improve despite a drop in GDP – if they start at a high level of inequality and move to a significantly lower one.

    It’s not just a question of improvements in various measurable outcomes such as health, crime, education, drug use, low productivity etc. Given that lots of very expensive problems such as these map to levels of inequality, we might expect a significant economic dividend in the medium to long term.

    So yes: I agree we need growth and distribution of wealth but I wouldn’t quite agree that moves to create greater equality aren’t of any use on their own.

    Another important point about equality is the problem of sustainable economic activity. We’re at a crucial stage in the progress of our species where we’re running into global resource limits – AGW for example. It’s a statement of the obvious to say that, if we want to sustain an industrial civilisation, all growth will have to be sustainable.

    Sustainable growth will be sporadic and relatively low compared to what we’re used to, largely based on occasional technological advances and on figuring out how to do more with less.

    The big problem with low or no growth is that it really throws a spotlight on inequality. When there is a sense that society is moving forward you can get away with lies like “trickle down”. If everybody is getting a little richer it’s easier to hide exploitative economic activities which make a much smaller number of people fantastically rich but once growth stops, the wheels will come off that wagon. I believe that high levels of equality will be an essential feature of a sustainable economic system.

    The future which is struggling to be born wants to talk to us about equality much more than growth.

  41. Bosun Higgs

    Since the invention of farming it’s all been downhill and I can see the point of stopping any further human progress now. However, I think it would be better to turn the clock back further, and divide Scotland into the old kingdoms of Dalriada, Alba, Northumbria, Pictland, the Highlands and the Viking settlements.

  42. Philip Robins

    relative poverty is defined by sociologists, toryghraphiv=cal lie machinery at it very finest ..

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