Scroungers and Strivers

We are encouraged to sneer at poverty and hardship.

Jane Miller December 25, 2012

Government Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell allegedly called policemen 'plebs' who should 'learn [their] fucking place.'

War on Want’ was a clever slo­gan that may even have char­ac­terised a time in the 50s and 60s when reduc­ing, even elim­i­nat­ing, pover­ty, here and else­where in the world, was a seri­ous hope and a prop­er endeav­our. No longer. Now we in the UK are regaled dai­ly with sto­ries demon­is­ing the poor. They are shirk­ers” and scroungers” rather than the strivers” and aspir­ers” the rest of us are. We are asked to imag­ine mem­bers of hard-work­ing fam­i­lies,” habit­u­al­ly up at the crack of dawn and shocked to see the drawn blinds of the fam­i­ly next door, who are work-shy, fast asleep, and ensconced lux­u­ri­ous­ly in homes paid for by us hero­ic tax­pay­ers. And — as they have noth­ing much else to do and any­way spend most of the day in bed — they are pro­duc­ing chil­dren at the rate of almost one a year. This isn’t fair,” we’re told.

Calling this a “living wage” reminds us that it is not possible, or even meant to be possible, to live on the minimum wage.

New ben­e­fit rules and tax cred­it arrange­ments have been set in train to deal with this injus­tice inflict­ed on us by the poor. Feck­less” fam­i­lies will be evict­ed from their homes and sent to wher­ev­er there is cheap­er, avail­able hous­ing, regard­less of work, schools, fam­i­ly and friends. There is even a move to cut ben­e­fit to fam­i­lies who have more than two children.

Help keep this report­ing pos­si­ble by mak­ing a dona­tion today.

The truth is that most of the poor do work, and are get­ting poor­er all the time. Far more peo­ple are work­ing part-time, often at sev­er­al jobs. It has become essen­tial for almost all women to work, yet more and more women are dri­ven out of their mod­est part-time jobs by the soar­ing costs of child care. The coali­tion gov­ern­ment talks about unem­ploy­ment as if it were a cho­sen way of life rather than the tragedy it is for so many fam­i­lies these days.

Labour intro­duced the min­i­mum wage in 1999. It cur­rent­ly stands at £6.19 an hour. Now there is a move across par­ties to encour­age what is called a liv­ing wage” of £7.45 an hour (£8.55 in Lon­don). Call­ing this a liv­ing wage” reminds us that it is not pos­si­ble, or even meant to be pos­si­ble, to live on the min­i­mum wage. How­ev­er, this liv­ing wage” would not be com­pul­so­ry for employ­ers, though if it were it would make an impor­tant dif­fer­ence to great num­bers of their employ­ees. The prin­ci­pal advan­tage of a liv­ing wage” in gov­ern­ment eyes would be that employ­ers would sub­sidise the poor rather than the gov­ern­ment, doing so on behalf of us trusty tax­pay­ers; and in the process they’d be turn­ing mil­lions of par­a­sites” into use­ful­ly cov­etous con­sumers. One or two employ­ers have actu­al­ly gone for it: most­ly banks, who have almost no low-paid work­ers, so it won’t both­er them. One hotel chain and one or two super­mar­kets are con­sid­er­ing it.

In Octo­ber, Andrew Mitchell, Gov­ern­ment Chief Whip and old school friend of Prime Min­is­ter David Cameron, was oblig­ed even­tu­al­ly to resign from the gov­ern­ment for swear­ing at the police­men guard­ing the gates to Down­ing Street, alleged­ly call­ing them plebs” and sug­gest­ing that they learn [their] fuck­ing place.” His denial that he used the word plebs” was coun­tered in the press by sug­ges­tions that no police­man would know the word and could not, there­fore, have made it up. There is a new ruth­less­ness to this class war­fare, waged by the well-off and suc­cess­ful against every­one else. Some of it is allowed and jus­ti­fied as a sen­si­ble response to polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness”: we are encour­aged to sneer at pover­ty and hard­ship. Peo­ple have only them­selves to blame. Mar­garet Thatch­er is said to have opined that any­one still trav­el­ling by bus after the age of 26 was a los­er. And Tony Blair appar­ent­ly regard­ed the sons of one of his pre­de­ces­sors as hope­less fail­ures, like­ly to be a source of shame to their father. One was a school teacher, the oth­er a math pro­fes­sor. Nei­ther was mak­ing millions.

In May of 2012, Mitt Rom­ney remarked that it was not his job to wor­ry about the 47 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion like­ly to vote for Barack Oba­ma, and he explained who they were. They were those who are depen­dent upon gov­ern­ment, who believe that they are vic­tims, who believe the gov­ern­ment has a respon­si­bil­i­ty to care for them, who believe that they are enti­tled to health care, to food, to hous­ing, to you-name-it.” They sound sus­pi­cious­ly like tax­pay­ers to me.

Jane Miller lives in Lon­don, and is the author, most recent­ly, of In My Own Time: Thoughts and After­thoughts (2016), a col­lec­tion of her In These Times columns and interviews.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH