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Is poverty the new normal?

August 14th 2019

Victoria Winckler, Director of the Bevan Foundation, asks if the increasing visibility of poverty means we are now ignoring it.

A recent article by Rachel Dickinson, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, got me thinking. It wasn’t so much that she made an impassioned plea for investment in children’s services, important though that is. It was a comment – almost an aside – that poverty is becoming normalised.

Think about it

Almost every supermarket has a basket or box to collect food for the local food bank. Almost every town has people begging on the streets. There’ve been a plethora of summer news stories about schemes to provide food for hungry children. Some schools are setting up school uniform swaps, providing sanitary products and are even washing children’s clothes.

We see or read about these outwards signs of poverty every day.

And because of that, instead of being outraged that children are hungry and cold in the fifth richest economy in the world, poverty has become part of the wallpaper. We may chuck a box of cornflakes in the food bank box or a 50p in the homeless person’s cup, but that’s it. Duty done and walk on. As Rachel Dickinson put it, ‘these small daily injustices have become part of the wallpaper.’

In some ways these visible signs of deep poverty are not surprising. By now most people in Wales must be aware that around one in four people lives in a household with an income below the poverty threshold. It’s not hard to find out that 56% of social housing tenants live in poverty or that four out of ten lone parents do so.

Nor is that surprising when you remember just how big the cumulative impact of welfare reform has been.  According to analysis commissioned by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, all except the best-off 30% of households are worst off by more than £100 a year.  And the households taking the largest hit are those in the bottom third, some of which lose an average of around £1,700 – equivalent to more than £32 a week.  And some families have lost even more if they’ve had the wrong mix of circumstances.

So far most responses to this rise in poverty are voluntary – community and faith groups, schools and social landlords stung into action. Brilliant though many of these responses are, they’re patchy, variable and are a poor substitute for what was once people’s entitlement.  There are few signs of the state – whether UK, Welsh or local – stepping in to solve the immediate problems.

As poverty becomes the new normal, we’re letting those responsible off the hook.

So next time you pass a homeless persson in a doorway, or the food bank box in your supermarket, or school uniform swap, don’t just give.  Tell your MP, your AM and your local councillor that poverty is not acceptable and ask what they are doing.

And maybe, just maybe, things will change.

Victoria Winckler is Director of the Bevan Foundation. Find out how you can help to find lasting solutions to poverty here

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