In all the countless heartless responses on social media over the recent government vote to allow children to go hungry this winter, the most common refrain has been that subsidising children’s meals over Christmas “will create dependency on the state”. What these politicos don’t realise is that this argument is profoundly inconsistent with other conservative ideals.
Charity is a largely conservative concept, and it’s easy to see the virtues of this in our current environment. While times of need can indeed bring out enormous generosity from well-meaning people (the outpouring of help for impoverished children inspired by Marcus Rashford is most certainly the compassionate Britain I know and love), the idea of charity is rooted in the Elizabethan concept of the “deserving poor”, the notion that some forms of poverty are more worthy of help than others. We donate to Charity X rather than Charity Y because we feel they deserve our patronage and support more than the other. While it may not be the venomous and spiteful attitude the Elizabethans had when deciding which people deserve aid while others were left to languish and suffer, this is a modern evolution of that idea.
The Conservatives’ ideological support for charity is born from its libertarianism. The magnanimity of the public is a stronger, more beneficial support to those in need than reliance on the state – or so is the reasoning. For some Conservatives, this viewpoint hinges on the assumption state assistance can corrupt its beneficiaries, and that state encroachment into the lives of private citizens should be disrupted as a matter of principle. In some cases, however, the support given to charitable aid stems from something far less altruistic: the selfish reasoning that a person’s hard-earned tax should not support anyone else. While this is ludicrous when taken to extremes – it could be argued that every state-funded endeavour from roads to the NHS should be torn up, on this basis – from a more liberal standpoint, charity is taken as an example of the generosity of the human spirit. To many liberals, charity is something that ideally should not be needed: it’s a tragic necessity alone.
Charity is deeply embedded within our social psyche, so much that it is part of the package deal that being a powerful celebrity or a figure within royalty entails; public figures are expected to be a patron for a particular charity and to rattle the buckets when the need arises. Charity is everywhere in western society, and we broadly view this as a positive thing.
Jacob Rees-Mogg himself championed charity, stating it was heart-warming to see so many donations to food-banks. The natural counterpoint to this is that the economic conditions engendered by his and his Party’s votes in parliament led to the requirement for this charity in the first place. But this is where the Conservative ideology breaks down: why is it that reliance on charity does not create any dependency on charitable aid? Why is it that aid provided by the state will inevitably, as many Conservatives argue, create some drug-like dependency, but charitable aid does not? If the Conservative ideology were consistent, this is surely trading one monster for another.
No talk of dependency is ever uttered when it comes to charity. Why? For many, charity is the “easy” way to help. You make a donation, you share a Facebook post, you “raise awareness”, and you’ve done your good deed. You pat yourself on the back, even forget about it after the fact, and get on with your life. In your mind, your actions have helped someone. That may be true, but it’s a very “fire and forget” method of helping – it’s shallow, and it isn’t a reliable metric for the long-term support that people in poverty so often need. People living in poverty require consistent, long-term investment before they can be lifted out of poverty, and charities broadly have neither the framework nor the resources to do this on a national scale.
A smattering of Conservatives have suggested that those in poverty may struggle with budgeting (against the deafening noise that it is not the state’s responsibility to educate people: catch-22). On the contrary, I would contend poverty is an excellent educator in financial planning – more times than not living in poverty can make a person hyper-vigilant in counting the pennies. But let us indulge this argument for a moment. This argument assumes that a person’s poverty is based only on the poor’s inability to portion money smartly, that if they possessed the economic acumen and savvy of the top-hatted cigar-smoking whisky-soaked stockbrokers, they too would rise to great heights. This is easily rubbished when we consider for a second that many circumstances which drive people into poverty are beyond their control: poverty arises from any number of chance circumstances, from instability of the job market, to housing regulations, energy bills, and economic recession. And even if it were true, that impoverished people could benefit from some financial planning education, what is to be done in the meantime? Should we allow children to starve?
We are often told sob stories and sold touchy-feely legends about the aphorical “self-made man”, someone who was born into poverty but wound up a millionaire, simply by their hard work (no luck, apparently, was needed!). This is the kind of toxic positivity that deludes many into the “I can do it too if they can!” attitude, reinforcing the American Dream-saturated myth that the majority of people are not one step away from poverty, as they really are, but temporarily embarrassed millionaires. For opponents of state aid, this is the assumption that is always held aloft – that with a bit of hard graft, anyone can work their way out of poverty into an El-Dorado of monetary richness. It’s time for a reality check. If this were true, every woman in Africa would be a billionaire by now.
The truth is that the overwhelming majority of people will lead rather generic, mediocre lives. The concept of the self-made man is a lie, a borderline Victorian workhouse philosophy, sold by those who are driving an increasingly depressing and soul-destroying work environment founded upon hyper-capitalist wage slavery, which is designed to extract every last morsel of energy from their workforce as possible and leaving their lives devoid of joy.
The same lies exist about our ability to resist poverty; being born into poverty for many, sadly, means they will likely stay there – not least because their chances of escaping it are so heavily influenced by the economics of the area they grow up in. This depressing truth is perhaps why the simplistic and caustic narrative of the self-made man pervades; many of us are just one missed mortgage or rent payment away from homelessness and poverty, and this kind of uncertainty breeds a deep-rooted anxiety. That fear of the randomness of life manifests in some aggressive, pejorative ideas about the poor that seem an attempt to self-soothe more than anything else. It’s a form of partially delusional self-medication; “I’m a hard worker, so it won’t happen to me – it can’t happen to me”.
Most people in the UK are decidedly ignorant about poverty. There are many reasons for this. For some it is social embarrassment: how could one of the richest countries in the world have people living in poverty? Poverty is a thing we’re used to seeing in Africa, or East Asia. We have benefit concerts for people in poverty, elsewhere. It’s always something that happens “elsewhere”. And the argument goes: if our poverty isn’t as bad as that outside our borders, it can’t be called poverty – surely?
Never underestimate our fellow citizens’ capacity for self-delusion. Many of us are repeatedly told we reside in a rich, powerful, prosperous nation while growing up. We should count our lucky stars we were born into this wealthy country, the creed goes, rather than in a struggling second- or third-world nation afflicted with poverty. Many of us grow up in relative ease and then go on to live comfortable lives. It is difficult to conceive of poverty if you have never experienced it, and even more difficult the further up the social ladder you climb. It’s this kind of empathetic disengagement that can lead someone on Question Time, who earns £80,000+ a year, to believe they are not in the top 5% of earners and that they are struggling to get by on a wage most of us can only dream of.
For some this denial of British poverty may be a reflection of shame: some have grown up in poverty and resent that time of their lives. They resent that they relied on handouts from others or from the state, and have since re-wired this narrative to convince themselves it was their hard work that pulled them out of it, rather than aid, or an unfathomable amount of luck. In some ways it’s hard to blame them. There’s such a huge social stigma that comes with being poor and, thanks to the toxic rugged individualism of the 1980s, a considerable stigma associated with asking for help from others. When half the UK thinks taking any kind of aid makes a person the welfare equivalent of a meth addict, it’s not difficult to see why, for some, it would be a source of shame. I understand where this comes from. I myself was not from the most well-off family in my school area compared to my peers (in my household, we were latecomers to having the internet, and almost always holidayed locally), and sometimes I suffered bullying because me and my family were perceived as “poor”. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for those living in actual poverty.
Many simply cannot conceive that, for some families, their parents must choose between putting money in the gas meter to stay warm in the winter or buying food to feed their children. For some, it is a choice between feeding themselves or feeding their children. So many families across the country are forced into making terrifying decisions to make ends meet. Do they buy that new sweater for their child, or do they top up their mobile phone instead so their children can stay in contact with them? So when the unempathetic, impervious to empathy and reason, take to social media to moan that these families could easily buy potatoes on the cheap to microwave, they only reveal that they simply cannot fathom that for many, it is a choice between buying the potatoes, or buying the electricity for the microwave to function.
There are pernicious stereotypes that surround poverty. The stereotype pervades that all parents with children in poverty are drink-sodden tobacco smoke-enshrouded crackheads who blow their money on Sky TV rather than feeding their children; that these supposed layabouts just sit and wait for their next state handout. Is this true for a smattering of people? Certainly. Is it true for the majority? Most certainly not. Even if it were true, voting to punish the failings of the parent by starving their children is a new low, even from the political party that in a former era became synonymous with being a gaggle of milk-snatchers.
However, these stereotypes of poverty reveal one uncomfortable truth; poverty, by its very nature, breeds the kind of vulnerability – from incomprehensible stress and mental illnesses – that permits predators to groom them, and creates new generations of alcohol and drug dependency. In so many cases, it is the poverty that breeds the drug addiction, and not the other way round. In turn, this feeds the growing, pervasive negative stereotype about the poor.
All people in poverty must, if adhering to society’s expectations, conform to a rigid perception of what poverty is. Those in poverty must always be seen to be half-starved, dishevelled dolorous individuals, wearing tattered rags for clothing, and begging for scraps of food, as though they were extras in a production of Oliver Twist. If they are in possession of any luxuries (ignoring the possibility that these luxuries may have been gifted to them, or they are very old models acquired at bargain-basement prices, or they saved up for them), such as mobile phones or the internet (arguably more of a necessity in today’s highly integrated digital age), then they are relentlessly assailed as deceitful frauds. After all, they have a phone – so how can they be poor? It is the poverty equivalent of “what was she wearing?”
It is a decidedly toxic view of poverty that does not permit those living in poverty any luxuries, to distract them from the lamentable conditions in which they live their lives. If the poor raise their heads above the water to keep themselves from drowning, they have begun to live a life, and thus are left in the dust; at this point, many perceive they no longer require anyone’s help. The logical conclusion of this reasoning is rather simple: the poor are not allowed to live. They are only allowed to survive.
There is something deeply uncomfortable, then, when multi-millionaires who will never want for anything take to the airwaves during charity season to beseech the British people to “give generously”, especially when the same people push through Parliament the legislation which not only does nothing to resolve poverty, but entrenches it, widens it, and prolongs it. Charity begins to take on an aura – not of “give generously”, but of “cough up, peasants”. Such people, ironically, are heavily dependent on the concept of charity,, not because they believe it is better at rendering aid than the state, but because they want others to do the work. “It is not my responsibility” is the attitude, while reaping the ego-stroking rewards that come with being a charity patron.
They have the power and the wealth to combat poverty. They just don’t want to.