How much do you need for food?
Another sign of the times is the debate about how much people on benefits need to spend on food. The BBC says you can have “a healthy diet on £15 a week”, Conservative MP Alec Shelbrooke thinks the problem is they spend their money on fags and booze and the Daily Mail says you can ‘survive’ on a pound a day.
Of course, most of us could take a holiday to poverty and get by for a day or two or even a week or two. Polly Toynbee is spot on about this, it’s the grinding effect that makes poverty different – the longer it lasts, the fewer resources you have and the more difficult it is to cope with an emergency or unexpected bill. Just as important, the longer it lasts, the greyer life becomes, the more depressing. That’s bad enough to live through, but to watch its impact on those you love must be unbearable. No wonder many people in long-term poverty are desperate to hang on to whatever “luxuries” they still have; lectures about this from the comfortable are beneath contempt.
What strikes me about all this is an historical parallel. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how the ‘localisation’ of the Social Fund was recreating the Poor Law. This debate replays one of the more disgraceful aspects of the Hungry Thirties – more than a decade of impertinent advice to unemployed people about how little they needed to live on. Trades unionists came up with all the responses I’ve given above, but it was George Orwell who had the clearest insight about the politics of this. In The Road to Wigan Pier, he imagined what would happen if the millions on the dole did actually cut their spending in the way the Daily Mail and Conservative MPs would still like.
Orwell had experienced French food culture at first hand and thought that the English could learn lessons about making food go further. But in the end that was irrelevant: people on benefits don’t have a hard time because they lack the skills to make the most of their benefits, their benefits are deliberately set at a level where most people will find it hard to cope. This isn’t a conscious policy of forcing malnutrition on millions of fellow-citizens, it’s the inevitable result of a political conversation dominated by the obsession that the poor may be putting one over on the rest of us. As Orwell put it:
If the unemployed learned to be better managers they would be visibly better off, and I fancy it would not be long before the dole was docked correspondingly.
People aren’t hungry because they’re incompetent, they’re hungry because the rest of us think that the possibility they may be getting away with something is more important than hunger.