Contrast these two excerpts from recent news reports, both of which refer to the current situation in the UK.
Despite the financial crisis, the total number of millionaires in Britain has risen by 50% over the last four years (The Week May 16th 2014)
3.5 million children will be in poverty by 2020 (BBC News Website June 9th 2014)
How are we supposed to interpret these two contrasting statements? Should we be concerned? I suspect that this depends on your point of view. Possibly, if you find yourself in the category of those individuals mentioned in the first report you may feel comfortable and even satisfied with your situation. By contrast, if you are the parent of one of the children referred to in the BBC report you are likely to be anxious, worried and possibly angry. However, we should not assume that those who find themselves in a position of affluence are not concerned for the welfare of those in poverty, or that those struggling to survive don’t in some ways feel sorry for those who are most wealthy (this is a serious point). Fortunately there are many wealthy individuals in this country, as in others who are challenging the moral status of a society in which these starkly contrasted situations co-exist.
Of course, the disparities between individuals living in wealth and poverty can be found in all countries, but today I am most concerned for the situation here in the UK. In 2010 the then Labour government passed the Child Poverty Act and put plans into place to challenge those conditions that lead to deprivation and social exclusion. A target was set to reduce the number of children living in absolute poverty (a measure related to median income levels) to below 5%. It has just been announced that this target is now seen not only to be unattainable, but for the first time since the 1960s there will be no reduction in child poverty this decade.
I asked if we should be concerned about this trend. We most certainly should if we recognise the consequences of such levels of societal inequality. Evidence suggests that as poverty increases so does the potential for social tension, increased disaffection and decline in standards of health. Poverty can be a significant cause of disability as a result of malnutrition, poor access to health care and inadequate housing conditions. All of these factors have significant impact upon the stability of communities and the overall economic welfare of the nation.
It will, quite rightly, be argued that the levels of poverty in the UK cannot compare to those seen in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, or some South American or Asian countries. Poverty may well be a relative term and clearly manifests itself at different levels from country to country. However, when poverty is set to increase in what is still seen as one of the world’s most stable economies, there is surely cause for us to be worried. In particular we should be concerned that in a nation with such affluence our political leaders appear to be either unable or unwilling to tackle an issue that is set to blight the lives of so many children. The inactivity of policy makers in this area results in the apportioning of blame to those very individuals most at risk of falling into poverty, and places an additional burden of care upon those charities, agencies and concerned professionals who express concern. Of course, a realignment of current socio-economic policies could do much to arrest this decline in the nation’s status. Unfortunately I see little evidence that this is likely to happen and suspect that before long it will fall to the lot of teachers, social workers and medical professionals to pick up the pieces from the fallout resulting from increased child poverty. I am normally a very optimistic individual, but both of the news reports cited above left me somewhat depressed.