Thursday, 14 March 2013

Is the tide turning on public opinion about poverty?

Politicians are not stupid, they echo back to the public what the public is thinking. If the public thinks benefit claimants are scroungers or the poor have only themselves to blame, politicians will say those things. But what if public opinion about poverty is changing, what then? In the last few weeks I have noticed small signs that the tide of public opinion may be changing for example:

The new Archbishop of Canterbury has joined more than 40 Church of England Bishops in an open letter to the Government criticising its Benefits Uprating Bill as an attack on the poorest especially children whom they say we all have a moral responsibility to protect.

Vince Cable MP on BBC Question Time from St. Paul's Cathedral on 21st February, in answer to a question about a single mother with numerous children housed in a very large house, said although the woman in question may have behaved irresponsibly nevertheless what should a decent society do? We cannot allow children to be living on the streets. Michael Heseltine, another panelist agreed, on another question regarding inequality - the huge disparity between rich and poor - the balance of audience and panelists was against further penalising the poor. The mood was the same in Gloucester during the BBC Radio 4 Any Questions debate the following day.

Last Saturday in her regular column in The Times magazine Caitlin Moran wrote movingly about the poor, making serious points about human dignity, living lightly on the earth and a convincing case for giving the poor more money to stimulate the economy.

I have the feeling that the public no longer believe the caricature of 'skivers vs strivers'. Almost everyone is feeling the pinch and most people know someone - a friend, neighbour, relative who has lost their job, or is having to work fewer hours or is under the threat or redundancy, we know they are not 'skivers' but they are in hardship. There is a growing awareness that most people who are poor are actually in work and the so-called 'culture of worklessness' is much more about available jobs and decent wages than personal fecklessness.

I sense too there is growing unease about the bedroom tax and not just from those who may be affected. People seem to be asking can it really be right that in our country people might be forced to move from their established family home, uprooted from everyone they know - neighbours, relatives, friends, schools, GP, local shops - everything that is familiar, for the simple reason they have an empty bedroom?

Here in the North East last week a Housing Company hosted a conference of tenants and others to discuss the bedroom tax. They wanted to point out that for decades we have been building 3 bedroom family homes,  there are very few 2 or even 1 bedroom properties. Where are people supposed to move to? If they are forced to move we could end up with hundreds of vacant 3 and 4 bedroom properties with no-one to fill them. What sort of sense does that make?

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