The war against the poor

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The war against the poor

From the US to China, Owen Jones writes about how everyone around the world is attacking the poor.

Society is full of inequality and so of course people see the poor as evil. It is very easy for people to say that it is OK that money and power are shared unfairly and that the poor should be poor. And this isn’t a new idea. In the 1930s British author George Orwell wrote his book The Road to Wigan Pier. In it he writes that we teach all middle-class children to wash their necks, to be ready to die for their country, and to hate the “lower classes”.


Mao’s ‘heroes’ are now the poor – a peasant farmer asks for money in a Beijing subway. Guang Niu

In Victorian Britain the situation was the same. In the late 19th century Arnold White was a right wing political agitator, who would be happy in the politics of today. He argued that only 20 per cent of the unemployed in Britain were truly unemployed. Another 40 per cent were simply stupid and hopeless, while the other 40 per cent were not normal. We hear arguments like that today.

In fact thinking the poor are bad or evil has become more common in Western societies, in the Global South, and in the East. But all this is making the rich stronger while often the poorest are losing their rights. Barack Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, argued that we never want to waste a serious crisis. This was when world economies suffered after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. He added that a crisis is a chance to do things you think you could not do before. Perhaps it wasn’t his intention, but this was a nice summary of what at a lot of governments do: they use a crisis to make policies that give more power to the wealthy and less to the working people.

As the New York Times reported, 93 per cent of the increases in income in the first official year of economic recovery went to the top one per cent in the US. In fact the average income for men in the US is now lower than in 1973. Do you remember Mitt Romney, the millionaire Republican Presidential candidate? Now we understand why Romney made his suggestion that 47 per cent of Americans were living off other people.

Getting help from the middle class

A lot of this criticism of the poor comes from the 1960s, when Democratic presidents introduced social reforms for minority groups. They paid for the reforms by increasing the taxes on middle-income Americans but not the taxes on big companies and the rich. For example, the taxes on the average American family nearly doubled between the mid-1950s and 1980. But taxes on big companies as a percentage of government income went from over 20 per cent to 14.6 per cent in the ten years after 1965. This helped to create the idea that people receiving welfare support were living off middle-class America and, as we saw in the 2012 presidential election, the idea is still with us The idea that the poor are evil goes back for centuries. But what people think about the poor in Britain now began with Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. She argued that there was no real poverty left in the country. She argued that if people are poor, it is ‘because they don’t know how to budget, don’t know how to spend their earnings’. She said that if you are poor, there is something wrong with you. And this was at the heart of Thatcher’s ideas: poverty and unemployment are not social problems, but individual problems. And if people are poor because they are not clever enough or do not try hard enough, then why should the state help them?


But it is during this financial crisis that these ideas about the poor have become more common. The important organisation, Resolution Foundation thinks the average Briton will be poorer in 2020 than in 2000. The real incomes of the bottom 10 per cent of people will fall by 15 per cent. It is a continuing fall in living standards not seen since the 1920s. A study by Save the Children showed that parents must choose to heat their homes or to feed their children; one in eight of the poorest children are not having a hot meal every day. Schools are cooking smaller meals because of budget cuts; they are stopping breakfast clubs, too. Britain is the seventh-richest country in the world but it seems it can no longer afford to feed its poorest children.

But for the rich things are going very well. Each year The Sunday Times prints a Rich List of the richest 1,000 Britons. In 2011, their money increased by nearly 20 per cent; in 2010, it increased by 30 per cent, the biggest rise ever recorded. Luckily for the rich the people’s anger at their worse living standards is not directed at those at the top who are responsible for the crisis.

Some people have tried to turn the working poor against the unemployed; to turn the non-disabled against disabled people; and the private sector workers against public sector workers. Sarah Teather was a government minister. She says that when there is any opposition they present a false idea of a family, usually a very large family, and probably black. People lost sympathy for people on benefits, she argued. She added that it is immoral to try to create envy and division between people to win popularity when it is children’s lives which suffer. This is a campaign to attack the poor supported by politicians and journalists. Very unsympathetic examples are given of the poorest. For example, earlier in the year, The Sunday Times newspaper had an article = ‘End the something for nothing culture’, with a photograph of a stupid family from the TV comedy Shameless. This suggested that these families from TV are real.

In another example, right wing commentator Rod Liddle suggested that his new year’s resolution was ‘to become disabled’ so that he could get financial state benefits. The Sun – Britain’s most read newspaper – has started what it calls a campaign to stop the terrible way it says people are getting state benefits illegally. The Sun thinks this is ruining the country! Getting state benefits illegally in Britain is thought to cost less than one per cent of welfare spending, or $1.9 billion a year; compare that to $40 billion lost by the richest not paying enough taxes.

Mao’s heroes are now peasant rubbish

China’s may be a very different society from Britain but we see similar ideas there. After the Chinese Revolution, the country peasants and city workers were adored.

China expert Gregor Benton says that in the Mao years, there was a long campaign to make people in the cities “learn from the poor peasants”. But after Deng Xiaoping became leader, there was a big and sudden change. ‘Let some people get rich first,’ he said. With the idea of xiaokang – or an ideal society giving the people what it needs – Xiaoping let market forces free in the Chinese economy.


Children living in low quality housing in Britain. The poorest 10 per cent of families will have a fall in income of 15 per cent.Karen Robinson / Panos

The real income of peasants increased by 14 per cent in the first six years of Xiaoping’s plan. But incomes began to stop growing and sometimes fell after 1995, while taxes were paid for education and healthcare in country areas. And after a fast growth in industry around one in ten Chinese people are now forced to move away from their homes to live in bad conditions in the poor parts of the city with no services. China has grown so fast but only 24 milItalic textlion out of the country’s 1.3 billion people make enough money to pay taxes. The income for each person remains around $7,600 below that of Angola.

The result of so many free market policies is that the government is treating the poor badly. A report by Amnesty International says that more and more families are losing their homes as local authorities sell land to developers. This is against human rights, it says. Amnesty International looked at 40 families who lost their homes and found nine people died when they protested or resisted. Between 2009 and 2011, there were 41 cases of suicide when families lost their homes. And this is happening not just in the countryside: in September 2,000 Apple factory workers rioted in the northern city of Taiyuan.

With social inequality there has been protest and a change in attitudes. John Sexton, who is based in Kunming, southwest China, says the Chinese media sees the rich and successful as heroes far more than the Western media. Newspapers and magazines write about and encourage the fantastical lifestyles of the super-rich. If they write about the poor, it is as those who have worked hard and without complaining to become billionaires. In novels the poor are seen as dangerous, violent and crazy. In the Chinese martial arts film Ip Man, rich masters are positive characters but the poor in the countryside are seen as animals.

The newly rich Chinese have negative attitudes. John Sexton says that he often finds that the middle-classes in the city seem to hate the poor. They call them dirty rubbish. Gregor Benton agrees and says that people in China laugh at the poor. Researchers Deborah S Davis and Wang Feng found that the growing numbers of the working-classes from the cities felt inequality and social injustice most.

The government knows about these problems. In 2004, a poll of senior Communist Party officials showed that most believed the difference in income was the biggest social problem in China and it was a bigger problem than crime. Countries are very different in many ways. But the growing gap between rich and poor and the wealth and power given to a small number of people are problems in many countries. The attack on the poor in society comes with these problems. It is a terrible situation. If the poorest are seen as lazy or as social problems, then arguments for a welfare state – or for governments to change inequality – can be lost.

The international war against the poor is real; but with enough confidence and organization from the lower classes, it can be stopped.

Owen Jones is author of the bestselling Chavs – the demonization of the working class. He writes regularly for the Independent newspaper in London.

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