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For some, ‘poverty’ has become a nice little earner...

by Kenneth Maitland

Before launching a business any entrepreneur worth his salt identifies a market that has prospects for growth. Ironically one growth area is ‘poverty’ and, on the surface, the record has been one of success, with over a million families having been taken out of poverty in recent years. Unfortunately, this has been achieved, not by innovation or entrepreneurship, but by persuading government to throw yet more wads of taxpayer cash at households in poverty, through increased benefits and so-called ‘tax credits’

But now the poverty industry is warning that, with the recession, families are again in danger of falling into poverty. And their solution to the problem is still more public money because within the poverty industry’s vast clientele everyone is a victim; no individual is poor (either literally or statistically) as a result of their own of poverty of thought or aspiration.

When I lived in Lanarkshire – a post-industrial county with many poor people, according to the poverty industry – a popular leisure pastime was a day trip to Blackpool by coach; fares were cheap and the destination quickly reached by the M74/M6. Now I happen to share the proletarian love of Blackpool; what is there not to like about a town by the sea devoted to the pursuit of fun?

The problem with Blackpool is that while it may be cheerful, cheap it ain’t. The thrill rides, the Tower and various other indoor attractions, three piers and the so-called ‘penny arcades’ are all designed to part visitors with their money. Even the world-famous art deco trams (now sadly reduced to a heritage role since the system was modernised) make Edinburgh taxis look inexpensive.

On the way to Blackpool, poor people from Lanarkshire would, of course, bypass the Lake District where the magnificent scenery is as free as air and anyone packing a picnic for a day-trip needs very little financial outlay. Yet you will rarely see a poor person, from Lanarkshire or anywhere else, walking in the Lakes. It seems to be the preserve of affluent professional types, all kitted out in the latest walkers’ designer gear bearing a North Face motif. People who could easily afford Blackpool if they were so inclined.

This paradox contrasts sharply with the 1930’s when thousands of unemployed, working class men and women eagerly took to the hills, pooling what little money they had to pay for transport, hitching lifts or even, in some cases, simply walking to their destinations. In this way the unemployed of Glasgow flocked to the Trossachs or the Argyllshire mountains while those in distressed industrial cities in the North of England made for the Pennines, the Lakes or the Peak District.

So why is this lust for natural, and inexpensive, leisure so lacking in poor people today when it did not apply to an earlier generation? Perhaps it might – just might - have something to do with the fact that unlike now, there was not the overbearing influence of a self-perpetuating industry which appears to be the antithesis of self-help.

Contemporary poverty has two sides – on one, those who are genuinely poor or whom the statistics deem to be poor; on the other the career structures which have developed around poverty.

Across the UK there must be hundreds of thousands of  relatively well-remunerated careers dependent on others being poor - council social workers, sociology professors, welfare rights officers, be-suited directors of charities, and academics with their endless studies into ‘deprivation’.

In the commercial world, a company usually measures success by growing the business while avoiding a corresponding rise in costs; or maintaining revenue levels while reducing costs.

By contrast, a sector whose purpose is to alleviate, reduce or eliminate property seems to take grim satisfaction from the fact that poverty still exists and threatens to increase. If a million households have been taken out of poverty why is the sector bigger now than it was a decade ago?

Were the ethos of business transferred to the poverty industry, one of their tsars would turn up for interview on Today on Radio 4, and declare to John Humphrys or Jim Naughtie:  “Look, we are making such good progress I can confidently predict that my job – indeed this entire organisation – won’t be needed in ten years’ time.”

But don’t bet on this happening anytime soon.

Just recently one senior figure attached to the poverty industry criticised the cutting of benefits because it would “force” young unemployed people to stack shelves.  Should one take this to mean that it’s acceptable for physically fit individuals to spend their weekdays plunked on a sofa watching Jeremy Kyle (through taxes paid by working people) until the ‘right job’ comes along? If only.

It has been proven beyond doubt that the longer an individual goes without a job, the deeper he or she gets into a rut, leading to a gradual erosion of the will to work. Therefore even if the job is “only” stacking shelves (a role, incidentally, absolutely essential to the food chain) and the money is not much more than the minimum wage, it still gives previously unemployed people a sense of worth, which must be a major step in restructuring their lives for the better.

The Bible says (in an oft-quote phrase taking various forms), “The poor will always be with you”. Thanks to the poverty industry the sentiment is probably as true today as it was when first mooted  2,000 years ago.