Poverty creates a mutant society

Sociological Notes
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The Independent Culture
TEN OR or 15 years ago a rich man who wanted to take a cane to the back of a young prostitute would have had to pay pounds 100 for each stroke; he can now do so for only a tenth of the price. It's a matter of supply and demand: there is a market surplus of desperate young women.

This simple statistic is a clue not only to the material hardship of the young women - aggravated almost inevitably by the chronic abuse of crack cocaine and alcohol - but also to a more fundamental and less tangible result of the new poverty that has invaded Britain in the last 20 years.

The key point about poverty is that it is not just a question of having too little money in your pocket. That is only the beginning. What really matters is the damage which poverty inflicts on the 13 million men, women and children in this country who suffer it: the physical damage which kills 115 people every day; the emotional damage which screams through the chaotic lives of street gangs and child prostitutes; the social damage in the epidemics of crime and drugs; and, finally, most significantly, a profound spiritual damage. Which is where the young women being beaten in brothels are so important.

There is a brazen loss of humanity in their lives. The men who beat them treat them merely as objects. The same is true of the people who run the brothels. What soon becomes clear, however, is that the young women on the receiving end of this exploitation treat themselves with the same cynical indifference.

In the ghettos, red-light areas and crackhouses the most striking single point is that people treat themselves and each other as mere objects. Like the child burglars who target homes which have ramps or handlebars outside, because they know they will find the old and vulnerable inside them; the two junkies who woke up to find their 15-year-old companion dead on the bed beside them and who reacted by fixing another needle and going back to sleep; the homeless men who set themselves up as "taxmen", extorting money from beggars in the West End of London; and, over and over again, the boys and girls in almost every city in England, selling themselves assiduously to passing men as if their bodies were unwanted property to be risked and discarded at will.

It is not that they themselves are inherently bad or inhuman. That is simply the self-serving fiction of the rich. The truth profoundly is that poverty is bad for people. It brutalises them. It has produced a mutant society. And the final point about this, is that there is a kind of contagion about it.

The affluent couldn't step over a body in the street, ignore a beggar outside the opera or drive straight past the endless devastated housing estates unless they had learnt to bury their compassion. This is what they have done, and one government after another has endorsed them. Every time a government minister from any party stands up and declares war on the welfare state, every time some respected thinker jeers at the idea of equality, or contrives a case for stripping the poor of yet more benefits, they give a cloak of credibility to this hardness.

Thus the mainstream society succumbs to a coarseness of values, a trivialisation of care. More than that, the poverty of their 13 million neighbours is a constant warning to the affluent of what can happen to those who fail, an invitation to work with more selfishness, a reason to care less about the unfortunate - to live by the morality of the brothel.

Nick Davies is the author of `Dark Heart: the shocking truth about hidden Britain' (Vintage pounds 7.99)