While the rich get richer, it's still the poor that get the blame

Trouble is, poverty ain't what it used to be. Forget rat-infested hovels, our poor have satellite TV and shoes
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The Independent Culture
TODAY'S COLUMN is about crystal therapy. I had intended to write about poverty in Britain, but when I went down to the local bookshop I couldn't find anything to help me except a couple of anecdotal journeys into The English Heart of Darkness (you know, hookers, crack and manslaughter). Whereas there was a wealth of material - shelves of it - on how to improve your chakras, colour your auras and transcend your ids. Perhaps if that 40 per cent of British people now defined by the Treasury as being on or below the poverty line were to get on down to their bookshops and pick up a few tips, they would be happier, if not necessarily any richer. It works in the Orient, doesn't it?

My bookshop is not run by callous people who care nothing about the poor. On the contrary. And despite the fact that one of the men has a ponytail, neither is it a New Age coven. Its shelves merely reflect what publishers publish, and what a very diverse set of customers will buy. In fact, I myself have blown nearly pounds 150 there in the past three weeks. Which happens to be pounds 11 more than a family of four living on half of average earnings has available to spend in a week, once housing costs have been paid. The same amount - pounds 129 - that pays for their food, clothes, entertainment, transport and - I dare say- fags, would get my lot a weekend in Center Parcs, a day at Disneyland Paris, or (a special treat) dinner for two at The Ivy.

Part of the problem here may be that poverty ain't what it used to be. Forget rat-infested rookeries; our poor fellow citizens have indoor plumbing, satellite TV and shoes. For the "if you haven't got cholera, then you're not poor" school of social justice, this definition of poverty as being relative is most offensive. How can you be said to be poor if you have all you need to stay alive, and then a bit?

Add to that the fact that many of us see poverty as being either intractable or, sadly, the consequence of moral or genetic weakness. Oh, don't deny it. Only academics can go through life without encountering such opinions in the pub or round the table. You tune into some appalling TV show, and discover the tale of Nicky or Sheila, who is 25, looks 55, and has five scrawny, shaven-headed kids by five different fathers. Then your chest bursts open and out pops your hideous, hidden, internal eugenicist, shouting "hysterectomy!"

And yet, for all the war stuff, if there's been one subject this Government has been banging on about this spring, it's been poverty. A few weeks ago old Tone was pledging himself to end child poverty inside 25 years, and yesterday Gordon Brown made action to eradicate poverty one of the central planks of the Government's mid-term platform.

So you can't help wondering whether they may not really mean it. But if they do, as James Naughtie twice asked the Chancellor yesterday, then why are they not advocating wholesale redistribution from the rich to the poor (presumably via the taxation system)? If poverty is relative, then inequality is as much the problem as is want. Therefore, the default equation suggests, we should take from the haves and give to the have- nots.

Mrs Thatcher, of course, thought that inequality per se was good. "Opportunity," she said in 1975, "means nothing unless it includes the right to be unequal. Let our children grow tall and let some grow taller than others if they have it in them to do so." (Incidentally, that sentence is so much less attractive when reversed, as in "let our children grow tall, but let lots of them grow much smaller than the others, if they can't keep up.") Increased wealth - the consequence of free-market reform and low taxation - would trickle down to the poorest in the form of jobs. And even if inequality of outcome grew, the overall consequence would be benign.

In fact, the very poorest, while becoming no poorer in absolute terms, became no richer either. In relative terms, however, they went off the edge of the board, and there were many more of them. And the reason why it matters is that - as yesterday's report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows - rank inequality of outcome pisses people off, demotivates them, criminalises them and, worst of all, disadvantages their children. These kids look around them and see a world in which they cannot hope to compete. Many of them give up.

The Rowntree report sees two major factors behind this development. The first is unemployment and the second (which I feel the report's authors try to play down) is lone parenthood. The second can obviously be related to the first. And in both cases access to jobs is the key problem. Well, the Government is doing a whole lot about that, and it claims some success for its New Deal measures.

But the main way in which children are going to break out of the inherited straitjacket of poverty is through education. And here, last week's figures about the scale of illiteracy and innumeracy in Britain should terrify us. One-quarter of Britons (and you wonder how closely these people correlate with those living in poverty) are functionally illiterate or innumerate. (This is four times the proportion of illiterates as in Sweden, so you can imagine, therefore, how impressed I was the other week to receive a pamphlet from the Social Market Foundation entitled "The Rise and Fall of the Swedish Model".)

And yet, when the Government introduces a literacy hour in British schools, you can't make yourself heard for the din of middle-class columnists talking about how their kids don't need it! Nevertheless, it is possible to imagine a situation in which everyone would have jobs, everyone was better educated, and yet there was still massive inequality.

As Anthony Giddens has pointed out, unbridled meritocracies can create huge differences in outcome between people whose talents are themselves only marginally different. These great gaps then become chasms of advantage too large for the next generations to bridge.

We could use much more central control to equalise wages, or we could tax much more heavily those who earn a lot. But that's largely academic. The consequence of too heavy-handed an approach would be a flight of talent and an epidemic of tax evasion. The minimum wage is probably as much central pay control as anyone wants. And any progressive social strategy will fail if it alienates middle-class opinion too much. It's sad, but there it is.

We might try a bit harder to ensure that advantage and disadvantage were not hereditary. This could mean taxing private schools and making them less attractive as opposed to state schools, freezing or abolishing the tax-free inheritance threshold (why are rich kids any less prone to dependency than poor ones?), and doing all that we can to persuade teenage girls to wait a while before having that baby.

And if that fails, there's always the crystals.