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

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