Poverty of spirit is the real cause of crime

One thing is not changing: the rich, on the whole, stay rich, and the poor, on the whole, stay poor
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I 'm sure I will offend none of my colleagues on this newspaper by contending that some of the most interesting points made within its pages are to be found among the letters from readers. A most significant letter appeared in The Independent last Saturday, from Paul McGregor. He berated "bourgeois liberals", the paper, and particularly myself, for repeating the "facile and fallacious mantra that poverty is the only cause for drug abuse, crime, illiteracy and so on".

And of course this mantra is fallacious. I'm more than aware that drug abuse, for example, is hardly confined to the poor, as I'm married to a recovering addict who was a child of the chattering classes. However, the point was more that by fingering poverty as the greatest single factor in bad behaviour, liberals excused those who offended from taking responsibility for their actions.

Yesterday, a brace of readers responded. One, David Braime, suggested that Mr McGregor was misrepresenting liberals, who do not believe that poverty is "the only cause" of various of society's ills, but instead that "factors such as poverty are great enough to influence some individuals into criminal behaviour". Quite.

Another, P Johnson, claimed that it was time for us all to start understanding that "the true causes of crime and many other social ills have nothing to do with poverty at all", partly because poverty had "largely been eradicated in this country". Up to a point.

These three correspondents have different things to say, and many of those are contradictory, yet oddly, they're all pretty much right in some respects at least.

Absolute poverty – living without at least one of the basic human needs of food, warmth and shelter – is now fairly rare. Leaving that aside, it would be most difficult to define "poverty", were it not for the fact that successive governments have provided us with a handy official benchmark. Poverty, in this country, is considered to be the state of existence of all those households living on less than half the average yearly income (which at the last count was £23,200).

When the Conservatives lost power, in 1997, this figure stood at 10 million. It has been in gentle decline ever since, with the benefit system recast to target working families and "lift" millions of children out of poverty.

Nevertheless, there are still many other people in Britain who could claim to be what the Victorians called the "deserving poor". Almost a third of pensioners live on less than £10,000, while quite a number of toiling farmers are making a good deal less than this. Anyone working full-time for the minimum wage – and even for quite a lot more – is officially living in poverty.

It is safe to assume that the vast majority of these people are not turning to a spot of carjacking and the like to supplement their incomes. And this, on a broader scale, is the point that Mr McGregor is making. He suggests that "the Deborah Orrs of this world are not describing the majority of my council estate neighbours who choose honesty over crime, work over the dole and yes, even education over ignorance".

I certainly know this to be true, because the vast majority of the people on the council estate I was brought up on made the same choices. One can live well enough on a low income. All it takes is self-respect, common sense, self-discipline, thrift, hard work, a good measure of intelligence, and a sense of human decency.

Can people who possess such riches really be classified as poor? Isn't it perhaps the case that what we've lost sight of nowadays is a real idea of what poverty is? The people who commit petty crimes are poor in all the things that those who have smaller financial resources, but refuse to, are rich. It appears to me that what Britain suffers from is spiritual poverty, and that it is this that is endemic.

For while I am more than happy to concede that there is no magical equation which makes people without much money into criminals, addicts and underclass low-lifes, I do know that the majority who don't have much material wealth but who resist such dubious temptations are very capable and worthwhile people.

What baffles me, though, is why it is that so many citizens with such manifest virtues do paid work that does not seem at all to reflect their tremendous worth. It's not that the money isn't there. But instead of being shared more equally, the gulf between rich and poor becomes more polarised all the time. At present the wealthiest fifth of the population share 45 per cent of income, while the poorest fifth share 6 per cent.

While the discrepancy between rich and poor gets bigger, one thing is most definitely not changing. The rich, on the whole, stay rich, and the poor, on the whole, stay poor. An analysis last year that was based on the General Household Survey concluded that the chances of a bright child who was from a poor background making it to the top have barely altered in 100 years. Sure, there are some. But there were some in Dickens's day, too.

The hard-working poor are often motivated above all else by the idea that even if their own station in life does not improve significantly, they can provide for their children the opportunity to do better than them. This incentive, though, is largely illusory. For Britain's decent poor, virtue is its own reward.

As for the others, the horrible minority who choose crime, the dole, and ignorance. Clearly they do not possess the admirable qualities needed to make a decent life in a harsh world. The people who suffer most for their failings are the hard-working people whose rewards are so meagre they have no option but to live cheek by jowl with those who care little for themselves or others.

It is the latter, of course, who are seen as the problem, and so solving the problem has become focused on attempting to do something to change their behaviour. P Johnston is "appalled by the way that social policy has become geared towards pandering to those whose problems are primarily self-inflicted". And indeed it is true that social policy does seem to have abandoned the idea that people quietly getting on with low-paid work can be helped very much. Look, for example, at the outcry against the establishment of a minimum wage, or the failure to act decisively when it is clear that there is a heinous shortage of social housing for those people who cannot afford to buy.

These are liberal policies which would seem geared to help the people that Mr McGregor rightly champions. Instead, he says that liberals are the "intellectual accomplices to crime".

If only liberals had that much influence. But the fact is that any kind of social engineering, post-socialism, is out of the question. Liberals, in the face of overflowing prisons, are the only people coming up with any suggestions at all about how appalling problems caused by the criminal underclass can be tackled. The messenger is as ever being blamed.

The divisions of class, aspiration and expectation are getting tighter in this meritocracy of ours instead of weaker. How strange it is that after all the years that have been spent dismantling socialism, it is liberals alone who are getting the blame for the unhappy situation the people who used to be called the working class are in.