Posts Tagged ‘poverty’


taxed by taxation

February 2, 2009

if I understood half the stuff in the papers about what exactly precipitated the global financial crisis I’d be ten times cleverer than I actually am. But still, I’ve been reading some fascinating and depressing stuff about tax and wealth recently. So thanks to my city-based friend T for kindly totting up the bonuses all the major banks in the UK have paid out so far this year. His figure – which he freely admits is unlikely to be fully accurate – comes to just over £30bn. Incredible.

A more careful analysis of corporate tax avoidance and the impossible complexity of today’s tax system comes in the form of this briliant piece in the New York Review of Books, by Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger. The main focus of the story is on the libel case that Tesco took to the Guardian after they published an inaccurate story. But along the way Rusbridger also highlights some eye-watering facts about corporate tax avoidance, such as HMRC’s estimate that today’s ‘tax gap’ (the amount avoided by individuals and corporations) is up to £13.5bn a year. According to the TUC, it would take average income tax contributions from £2.4m households to make up this shortfall. Or, again from HMRC’s analysis, the fact that 25% of the 700 biggest firms in the UK paid absolutely no corporate tax in 2005-6.

How can we have any kind of legitimate debate about tax and redistribution if the richest businesses and individuals of the UK can effectively exempt themselves? And surely the money spent by government on reclaiming benefits overpayments (which, at £1.9bn, is dwarfed by these kinds of figures incidentally) would be better spent on closing these loopholes and ensuring that our largest corporations pay their way?

For Rusbridger, one of the major reasons these have not become issues worthy of public outrage is the sheer complexity of the system. Papers can’t afford to hire in the expertise necessary to make sense of (and expose) the tangle of ‘innovative financial products’ firms are using today. And even if they could, it’s just too complicated to explain in a way that any of us lot with busy lives and overly full heads can make sense of.

The Guardian must be brave, because despite having all that law flung at them by Tesco, and despite the nerves they must have about whether they can make this stuff accessible enough, today they launched a major new investigation into these issues, which they will be reporting on over the coming weeks. Worth keeping an eye on.


round about a pound a week

November 19, 2008

I’ve been pulling together lots of stuff recently on the work of the social reformers of the early 20th century. Lesser known than Charles Booth’s study of London, or Seebohm Rowntree’s investigation of York, is Maud Pember Reeves’ Round About A Pound A Week with the Fabian Women’s Group in Lambeth, my very own borough, almost exactly one hundred years ago.

Like Booth and Rowntree, Pember Reeves and her fellow women investigators conducted a version of ethnographic research to understand life for families living on between 18s and 30s a week – not the poorest, but those families where the men had some kind of work (not entirely dissimilar, perhaps, to the ‘just coping’ families we worked with in Kent). They documented daily routines in minute detail, capturing menus, children’s moods, the isolation of many of the mothers, and who went without what to keep going. They found many of their assumptions to be wrong when confronted with such family life. For example, Pember Reeves notes that they thought that drink would be the source of many of the problems. In fact, the men were unable to drink on this kind of income.

Her report had a powerful impact. Her work shocked people by revealing the depth of poverty that kids were growing up in. Her final chapter, on the state’s role in tackling such poverty, begins with an extract from The Times, which is worth quoting:

Because they are the children of the nation, the nation owes them all the care that a mother owes to her own child. Because they are the future nation, the nation can only neglect them to its own hurt and undoing. That is a law of life which is proved up to the hilt by the bitter and humiliating experience of a large proportion of the disease and mortality and crime in our homes and hospitals and asylums and prisons. But it is a law of life which also carries with it this further truth – that the nation’s children are the nation’s opportunity.

Pember Reeves made a clear moral, social and political case for tackling poverty that brought together stories with cold hard facts and policy analysis. Time for some more of that. And time to find a way of making connecting it to the Children’s Party idea I’ve blogged about before…


tv does social commentary

November 19, 2008

when BBC4 was launched, its tagline was ‘everyone needs a place to think’. Too true – but in the past I’ve always been unsure about whether TV was that place for me. I’ve often felt that to get a programme aired, people have had to make real compromises about exploring nuance – all those liminal spaces that I love so much – in order to ‘get the story’. However, at the weekend I watched two truly excellent documentaries that had all the qualities I look for in social commentary work.

First, The Fallen, a deeply moving and powerful three hour documentary about the 298 people in the armed forces who have died in Afghanistan and Iraq in the last few years. It really was amazing, not least that the BBC gave it three hours of prime time TV. The format was simple: every single person was named, and war footage was interspersed with families and friends remembering the people they have lost. I’ve never seen anything like it: tales of how different people from all backgrounds deal with grief, stories of how we cope with such sudden loss while trying to keep life going. Morgan Matthews, I salute you.

The second programme was Growing Up Skint, a documentary that followed the lives of three different families living in pretty desperate circumstances. The kids they filmed were great, successfully challenging a frequently made assertion that people growing up poor lack aspirations. Rubbish. All of the kids in the programme hoped for a better life, despite the chaos around them. They all wanted to have successful relationships, to live in a nice place, to have work that meant something to them. The film also demonstrated the ‘othering’ effect of poverty. So much stigma is attached to it as a label that even those people living in what can objectively be called poverty refuse to self-identify as such. One little girl said she didn’t think they were poor because she’d seen poor people in Bangladesh and they weren’t like that. Another got cross with the film maker when there was a hint that he was seen as poor: it mattered to him that this was not how he was labelled.

What struck me with both films is how successfully they used their medium. The effects of war and poverty became real, live issues again, rather than a wealth of dehumanised statistics. There was no narration in either of them: the people spoke for themselves, with the director’s skill coming from how the footage was put together so it had its own story, without the need for additional explanation. Not only did this make the messages even stronger, it explored two issues that could easily be hammed up in a deeply humane and respectful way.