Why we need an emergency response to poverty - RSA

Why we need an emergency response to poverty

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  • Health & wellbeing
  • Global
  • Social justice

Amid all the Westminster intrigue, the UK is in the middle of a national emergency where too many of our fellow citizens are living in poverty.

There is no doubt that inaction at this stage compromises the present and will jeopardise our social and economic future for generations.

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights

Here we are in 2019, talking about poverty in the UK and it is used to explicitly describe the lived experience of too many of my fellow citizens. This can be discombobulating for some, but it is visible to us all whether we choose to admit it or not.

It may not seem obvious - the worn shoes, the pallor skin, hollow eyes – even for me easily distracted by the bright lights of the London city scape it is there in plain sight. And it is made even more visible by the rise in food banks and social supermarkets and regressive cocktail of benefit cuts over the last decade. 

The recently released Human Rights Watch report and the final report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights exposed what we all know to be true - too many of our fellow citizens are suffering.  And it is not a direct cause of economic measures from the financial crisis of 2008, it is a political choice.

Poverty numbers are an indictment of UK economic policy

If you contemplate the numbers for a moment, it is staggering. 20% of the UK population – 14 million people live in poverty, 2.5 million people in the UK survive with incomes no more than 10% of the poverty line 1.5 million experienced destitution in 2017.

There is no hiding behind these numbers. This is happening in the fifth largest economy in the world with the access to resources and the capabilities to address the issue head on. Therefore, one cannot help but admit that this is a political choice where those in authority are making decisions without due consideration on how it can affect the most vulnerable amongst us.

It is a clear indictment of current UK economic and social policy. Those at the frontline of this tsunami form a vast eco system of faith-based organisations, charities, food banks, communities and kind individuals are stepping up where the public provision has failed.

The double release of the HRW report and the UN Report is framed within the context of basic human rights. The Human Rights Watch report was particularly focused on:

“obstacles to ensuring the right to food, as part of the right to an adequate standard of living, in the context of a welfare system in a rich democracy with a relatively well functioning rule of law system.” 

Whilst the UN Special Rapporteur report is the result of a country visit that satisfies its mandate to report:

the extent to which UK government policies and programmes relating to extreme poverty are consistent with human rights obligations.”

Lest we forget, that basic human rights do not only include abstract ideals like justice, liberty and freedom but also the rights of everyone to an adequate standard of living (food, health care, clothing, housing). These rights are enshrined in a litany of international human rights treaties of which the UK is a signatory.

The main argument of both the HRW report and the UN Report is that this commitment and obligation is not met in current UK domestic policy. In short, the UK Government is failing to secure basic living standards for its citizens.

What gets measured, gets done - the UK does not have an official measure of poverty

For me, the most shocking thing about the report was not the dire situation illustrated by the statistics. The startling thing was the fact that the UK government does not have an official measure of poverty.

Instead it uses different measures to calculate the number of persons who live on “below average income.” By doing so, the government does not adequately capture the size and depth of poverty, one that includes its multidimensionality (more than just income) but related to health, education and living standards. It also does not wholly account for the 4 million UK workers which make up the working poor.

Also, the central tenet of the UK government’s approach to poverty solutions is all wrong. Work is no longer enough to guarantee an adequate standard of living. Low levels of unemployment are not concomitant with rising poverty levels. Therefore, a social welfare system predicated on finding a job is not robust enough to address the most vulnerable amongst us.

This is the reason why the language of the reports is so strong. An individual’s basic human rights should not be solely determined by market conditions.

The reality of economic insecurity

Our RSA report Thriving, striving, or just about surviving described the state of play of the UK labour market where:

“one in five workers have trouble making ends meet, 43% of workers do not have anyone they can depend on when confronted with hardship. Many workers lack the necessary savings to withstand financial shock – 32 percent have less than £500 in savings and 41 percent hold less than £1,000.” 

The current job market is increasingly precarious, characterised by low wages and insecure work which fuels economic insecurity. What is economic insecurity? It refers to the:

“harmful volatility in people’s economic circumstances. This includes their exposure to objective and perceived risks to their economic well-being, and their capacity to prepare for, respond to and recover from shocks or adverse events."

The most vulnerable among us are more susceptible to shocks and thus are the ones who require the most attention. The punitive aspects of the current welfare system are punishing the very individuals we need to safeguard the most.

This was apparent during the RSA’s research in Fife where we spoke to locals who said that “the system’s out to screw us, keep us in our place.” It “fatigues you in every way – physically, mentally, financially” and “it is not called a poverty trap for nothing.”

Poverty in the UK requires an emergency response

This is nothing short of a national emergency and thus requires an equivalent response akin to a Marshall Plan for the UK - a suite of bold policies (such as alternatives to conditionality based social support such as Universal Basic Income, shift in policies related to benefits et al) determined to act urgently to secure the basic human rights for so many and to also act as a pre-emptive strike against any future economic shocks likely to occur.

This emergency also presents an opportunity to redefine what we (UK plc) will accept and will not accept. I think we can agree that so many of our fellow citizens living in poverty or deprivation is unacceptable. I hope the UK government gives due consideration to the message (not attack the messengers) and enact the recommendations proposed especially the introduction of an official single multidimensional measure of poverty and legislative recognition of social rights so that this will be the core principle underlying social and economic policy going forward.

The twin reports are compelling us to carefully articulate – What do we stand for? What are our ideals and how will we guarantee protection for all our citizens especially the most vulnerable? For me the answer is simple,

We recognise the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions. We will take appropriate steps to ensure the realisation of this right.
Article 11 - International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

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  • 15 years ago as a business for social purpose we called for government policy level support for business to tackle poverty.  Our policy guide was the International Covenannt on Economic Social and Cultural Rights and we warned of what lay ahead

    "While the vast majority of people in poverty suffer quietly and with little protest, it is not safe to assume that everyone will react the same way. When in defence of family and friends, it is completely predictable that it should be only a matter of time until uprisings become sufficient to imperil an entire nation or region of the world. People with nothing have nothing to lose. Poverty was therefore deemed not only a moral catastrophe but also a time bomb waiting to explode."