Breadline Britain: The rise of mass poverty, by Stewart Lansley and Joanna Mack

Oneworld Publications, 2015, 1 78074 554 2, pbk, xvii + 334 pp, £9.99

On my bookshelves there is a slim paperback written by Stewart Lansley and Joanna Mack called Breadline Britain. It was published in 1983 to accompany a television series of the same name. Thirty years later the same authors have published a longer book with the same title – and the distressing thing is that not only have things not improved for the poorest in our society, but that in many respects they have got worse. For instance: the number of those who cannot always afford sufficient food has doubled since 1983, from thirteen to twenty-eight percent of the population. A too frequent proportion is ‘one in ten’: one in ten households now live in damp homes, and one in ten cannot heat their homes adequately. The book is easy to summarise: Lots of people are living in poverty, and their number is growing.

For the 1983 television series Lansley and Mack developed a method that defined poverty as an inability to afford a minimum standard of living defined by what the majority of people think are necessities. Where households lacked a range of necessities they were in ‘deprivation poverty’. The authors used the same method for the research underlying their new book, and the results are really quite shocking, particularly in relation to children. One in five children now live in a home which is cold or damp because their family does not have enough money to afford sufficient heating; and one in ten children lack an essential item of clothing such as a warm coat or a second pair of shoes – again, one in ten. And it’s not just the number of people below the Breadline Britain poverty line that has risen. The number of people just above that line is also rising.

What is important about the method is that it measures the extent to which households are or are not part of the society to which they belong. The number of households significantly not part of society in relation to the necessities of life identified by public opinion is now double the number thirty years ago: and, perhaps even worse, when measured against the necessities identified in 1999 rather than those identified in 2012, there are more people in poverty now than there were then.

A particular problem that the authors identify is that in relation to the publicly-identified necessities, average living standards have risen during the past thirty years, so it is not too difficult for a government and the media to ignore the fact that the living standards of the poorest have fallen. Today’s reality is growing inequality as well as growing poverty.

This book is packed full of detail: on the method used to define and measure poverty; on the four surveys so far conducted using this method, in 1983, 1990, 1999 and 2012; on the effect of ‘upheaval in the market for jobs’ (p.89) on poverty levels among working age adults and their families; on the ways in which the victims are blamed rather than lack of opportunity being held responsible; on the ways in which the poor are punished for their poverty; on the ways in which the Government subsidises people who are already wealthy (particularly in relation to home ownership); and on foodbanks.

So what is the solution? The authors suggest that raising wages and improving job security is an important part of answer. Yes, it is: but while a government can impose a National Minimum Wage, and can regulate employment contracts, in the context of global markets for goods, services, and increasingly labour, government action in these fields is unlikely to be sufficient to significantly reduce inequality or poverty. The authors also suggest that a major problem is our largely means-tested social security system, and that a solution is to increase the coverage of universal benefits. In the short term, Child Benefit needs to be increased in value. In the longer term a Citizen’s Income is required (p.237), along with continuing means-tested provision for housing costs. They suggest that the tax system should be made more progressive in order to fund these provisions. The authors see the increasingly successful Living Wage campaign, and mounting social pressure for the reduction of poverty and inequality, as signs of hope. Yes, they are: but it is probably also true that unless universal benefits, better jobs, and a higher National Minimum Wage are successfully argued for on the basis of their economic efficiency – which of course they can be – they are unlikely to happen.

As Polly Toynbee suggests on the front cover, ‘This is the book everyone needs to read’. They do. And they particularly need to read page 237.