Dani Garavelli: Survival is a poor aspiration for society
THE Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s survey, which suggests a family of four needs £36,000 a year to enjoy a socially acceptable standard of living, has been greeted with the predictable outcry from higher earners who believe you’re only hard-up if your children go barefoot or you hang out your teabags to dry after use.
“Since when has a car been a necessity?” they ask incredulously as they load their children into their Range Rovers and head off to the weekly piano lesson. “If those on low wages need a computer, why can’t they go the local library?” they rant, as they staple the pristine pages of their privately educated offspring’s latest masterpiece together and stick it into a presentation folder.
Personally, as I emerge from the shops £100 poorer and without enough groceries to last the week, I wonder how those on lower incomes manage at all. The thought of surviving on the average wage – £26,000 – brings me out in a cold sweat, and I have nothing but admiration for those who continue to keep their families afloat as they are assailed by the triple blow of rising costs, falling salaries and cuts in family credit.
If the JRF was talking about designer trainers, iPods and games consoles, I’d have some sympathy with its critics. But its report focuses on more mundane outgoings, such as childcare, without which most parents can’t go out to work in the first place. It calculated the cost has risen by a third since 2008 (twice the rate of inflation), so a bigger chunk of the family income is leaving the house before a single piece of food has been put on the table.
Then there is petrol. According to the JRF, the cost of bus fares has risen so much most people now consider a car a prerequisite for a comfortable life. I would argue that, given the way society is structured, it is fundamental to most families’ wellbeing, regardless of public transport costs – particularly if they are strapped for cash. Since most big supermarkets, which sell cheaper food, are out of town and buying in bulk is more economical, it makes more sense for those on a budget to drive to a retail park once a week, than to walk to the local Spar on a daily basis. Particularly, since one of the clearest measures of a socially acceptable standard of living is the ability to feed your children the kind of balanced diet the government is always banging on about. Yet with petrol having gone from £1 a litre at the end of 2007 to £1.30 a litre today, running even the most eco-friendly vehicle is becoming less feasible.
There’s no point in comparing poverty here with poverty in Africa. Of course, in developing countries, women may have to walk miles to get water from the nearest well. But does that make it unreasonable for a British family with two working parents to complain about the lack of a tumble drier? To an African it would be an unthinkable luxury, but if you’re doing 10 washes a week and it won’t stop raining, knowing you’re better off than someone on another continent is little consolation, particularly if everyone around you seems to be able to get their laundry done with ease. I don’t think aspiring to a supply of dry clothes in the midst of a deluge is evidence of an undue sense of entitlement.
The same is true of the summer holidays. If the sun shines it’s easy. You can send your children out to play in the park. No-one’s suggesting they should expect weekly trips to Go Ape. But if it’s raining so hard your garden’s been turned into a mini T in the Park and they’ve been indoors for days, you need to find an alternative. If you take them to the cinema, it’ll set you back £25. Maybe that’s a luxury. But are we honestly saying people who work long hours should not be allowed the occasional treat? Why, even those who survived on jeely pieces thrown from the windows of tenements went to the picture house once in a while.
Computers are a particularly contentious issue, illustrating the “you-lot-don’t-know-you’re-born” brigade’s detachment from reality. It’s all very well to say: “We managed fine without them.” But today the education system is structured in such a way that those without internet access are discriminated against just as those without access to books would have been a generation ago.
Last year, even my youngest, in P3, was expected to sign on to Glow, an online community for Scottish schools, and complete assignments on Microsoft Word. Since I also require internet access, although we have both a computer and a laptop, there were still regular arguments over whose shot it was next.
All this, before we even talk about the cost of school shoes, clothes and pensions (without one, your financial struggles are likely to worsen in old age). So, I don’t take much convincing that £36,000 is the minimum needed for a socially acceptable standard of living, though plenty of people make a decent fist of raising their families on less. It’s disgusting to suggest those at the lower end of the economic spectrum are greedy for expecting more than the bare minimum, while those at the top are still collecting hefty bonuses.
Moreover, if we concern ourselves only with “absolute” as opposed to “relative” poverty; if we decide the lowest paid should expect only what they need to survive as opposed to what they need to participate meaningfully in society, there will be no equality of opportunity, and social mobility – already greatly diminished – will all but disappear. The poor will remain poor, while those who can afford life’s little extras – music lessons, a day at the seaside or a bottle of wine – will make sure their economic advantage is further entrenched with every passing generation.
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 18 May 2013
Temperature: 8 C to 12 C
Wind Speed: 25 mph
Wind direction: East
Temperature: 9 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 7 mph
Wind direction: North east