Sunday, 2 March 2014

Choosing Poverty

Mark Wood, who died in extreme hunger four months after his benefits were slashed.
No, not a blog piece in the spirit of the dreadful "austerity porn" of "Benefits' Street", but rather the title comes from the words of Green MEP Keith Taylor at the party conference in Liverpool yesterday afternoon, when (apparently channelling Madiba, and why not?) he declared, "Poverty is not inevitable. It is a deliberate political choice."

And so indeed it is: the choice of the Coalition Government. Whilst Cameron can declare that "Money is no object" for the 3,000 flooded households of Middle England, the rise in poverty, with one-in-five households now below the official poverty line, has been claimed to be unavoidable and, in such a context, quite acceptable by the Cabinet of Millionaires. Indeed, as an instrument of undermining labour unions and pressure from ordinary workers for pay rises, miring a sizeable chunk of the population in poverty can easily be seen as in fact a very deliberate policy choice by politicians bought up by the corporate interests that seek profit maximisation first and last in all that they do.

The Green conference's second full day, set in the striking if starkly contrasting opulence of the city's St George's Hall, had austerity as a theme in a number of segments of the day. As well as recommitting the party to a basic citizens' income, a seminar on austerity in Europe heard Nick Dearden from the World Development Movement deliver an impassioned plea for unity between progressives to oppose austerity. Speakers covered how the public sector is being squeezed to death while the bankers cream off public money to continue to pay themselves obscene levels of bonuses while a further session heard of Tory plans to break up national benefits altogether and return them to local authorities, not only to administer, but to set: going back to pre-1839 Poor Law arrangements.

This came on the very day that the Guardian reported on the utterly revolting case of Mark Wood, a 44 year old man with serious mental health problems who starved to death after the Government declared him fit for work and removed most of his benefits. Mark's final days on Earth appear to have been filled with abject hunger, fears about being evicted after his housing benefit was stopped and feeling too ashamed to ask relatives for financial help. Although the coroner was unable to establish a precise cause of death, he said that it was probably "caused or contributed to by Wood being markedly underweight and malnourished". He weighed 5st 8lbs (35kg) when he died; his doctor said his body mass index was not compatible with life.

Government politicians have been silent on Mark's case; but he is far from alone in terms of misery leading to a rash of suicides among unemployed and disabled people hounded by the ATOS firm appointed to review claimants' eligibility - so Ministers have often tried to shift the blame to ATOS, even to the point that they now seem to plan to take the contract off the French-owned IT firm in 2015 when it is due for renewal and had it to some other big conglomerate like Serco or Crapita. On BBC Any Questions, Scottish Secretary Alistair Carmichael was to be heard almost audibly wringing his hands (or maybe washing them) about the system not being up to dealing with "life events".

Well, whatever this man (the claimant of the second largest amount of expenses in the entire Commons - at £82,878 in 2012/13 over and above his salary) meant, the fact is that it is his system; it was designed and approved by the Cabinet he sits in and voted through the Commons by MPs he and others whipped to support it. ATOS is castigated again and again for its dreadful, sociopathic decisions and surreal testing of claimants, but is in fact simply doing the bidding of the Coalition - it is assessing against the ludicrous set of descriptors created under the aegis of the supposed genius Ian Duncan-Smith. And, as noted above, he and his ilk have every reason to want it to be as viciously ideologically destructive as indeed it is being.

Food bank not required: Carmichael - heading for the Westminster trough?
This, after all, is a country where food banks have massively risen in use - tens of thousands of people visit them each week to receive charity handouts of unhealthy processed food. 50% of them are people experiencing lengthy delays in benefit payments they are entitled to even under this system - a fact now acknowledged even by the right-wing Policy Exchange think-tank.

Is the Government concerned? Not at all - Tories, snickering like the overgrown (and overpaid) schoolboys many of them are during the food banks debate in the Commons, almost satirically claim they show the Big Society at work. And as for the Lib Dems? When they are not trying to downplay their use by claiming the feckless have brought benefits sanctions on themselves (Mr Carmichael again in a bewildering performance before MSPs), they are actually grinning and opening them: Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander, who claims £8,500 in public money a year for his kids travel costs alone, happily cut the ribbon at the opening of one in his own constituency.

"I'll have had your tea!" Grinning Minister at food bank.
Ashamed? Not at all. For people like Danny, it's all part of Living the Lie.

Keith Taylor, by contrast, has commissioned extensive research into food banks and the reasons people are driven to use them; and the story uncovered by his researcher Samir Jeraj is very different indeed. "Food Bank Britain" busted the myth put about by the Government that food banks are used purely because they exist. Rather it found that food bank use is soaring because people in Britain are experiencing the grind of poverty. Wages have stagnated for years, benefits are being cut and, increasingly, people are finding their benefits removed without any good reason.  In his own constituency of South-East England alone, Taylor tracked a 60% increase in use year on year, as well as the growing phenomenon of people forced to choose between "heating and eating".

The crisis is evident and so are the causes - the concentration of wealth in tiny numbers of hands to the extent that the recovery such as it is rests largely on the personal debt of the poor and random handouts such as PPI compensation payments. It is not sustainable - and sooner rather than later, it will come crashing down - and very soon, if Guardian commentator Ha-Joong Chang is right. But the big question is obviously how to tackle poverty in a way that is just and peaceful, rather than potential alternative scenarios of social conflict, chaos and authoritarian responses.

The Greens debated a range of solutions on offer: the party itself has long supported the concept of the Citizens' Income, which would give a basic income to all adults whether in work or not. This, the argument goes, would protect people from absolute poverty, permit people to be paid for socially useful work, such as caring for others, which currently goes unrecognised, and arguably, by maintaining a minimum level of demand in the economy, reduce the impact of future recessions.

But aside from issues such as how this might impact on the living wage (or not), the big question raised is how it would be paid for. And here, the elephant in the room is inequality; or, more specifically, tackling the excessive wealth of the richest in society. For at the same time as food banks have grown exponentially, the rich in Britain have never been richer: since the banking crisis of 2008/9, the total wealth of the UK has increased by over £60,000 millions - that's £1,000 for every man, woman and child in our country. But less than one sixtieth of that has reached the pockets of ordinary people.

Greens debated austerity across Europe - Clara Paillard from PCS union
So, rather than hover around housing reform and fruit & veg vouchers as a speaker from one liberal think-tank attempted, the real solution surely lies in looking at the top of the economic pile as well as the bottom: the richest 500 Britons could pay off the entire national debt and still have £30,000 millions to share between them, whilst CEO and top directors' pay has burgeoned, leaping by hundreds of per centage points through the recession.

The Greens have shown they are ready to argue for such tough approaches to the economic war being waged on ordinary people by the corporate elite, the one per cent (or in reality, even smaller number) who run our planet. The party has voted previously for a maximum wage (of £150,000 pa, after which income tax would be levied at 100%) and has called for inheritance tax to be increased rather than cut. In the European Parliament, Keith Taylor and his colleagues have argued successfully for an EU-wide transactions tax (variously known as the Robin Hood or Tobin tax) and for limits to financial sector bonuses - both have been opposed by the Conservatives and Lib Dems. And Green councillors in Brighton have adopted the Living wage for their employees.

This is not some ideological never-never land. Rather, it is the logical, urgently needed response to the crisis we face of a society bereft of any real, sustainable economics; of a country now the fourth most unequal on the face of the planet; and of an electorate deserted by the main parties (and the faux insurgents of UKIP) for the pockets of the corporates. In a world of finite resources, it is not a question of would it be economic ruin to redistribute wealth and create a new economic paradigm; rather, it is a question of what dark future lies ahead for all of us if we don't.
Food bank use is soaring because people in Britain are experiencing the grind of poverty. Wages have stagnated for years, benefits are being cut and, increasingly, people are finding their benefits removed without any good reason. - See more at: 
Food bank use is soaring because people in Britain are experiencing the grind of poverty. Wages have stagnated for years, benefits are being cut and, increasingly, people are finding their benefits removed without any good reason. - See more at:

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