Monday, June 01, 2009

The deserving poor and the undeserving rich

On Sunday we were at a loose end so decided to visit a local National Trust property. For those who don't know, the National Trust is an obsession for the middle-aged middle-classes, and being one of the biggest and wealthiest landowners in the UK is responsible for the upkeep of a large number of historical buildings and large areas of British countryside.

Anyway, we visited one of our most local properties - Packwood House. The story in brief is that a wealthy bloke bought a house at the beginning of the twentieth century which had a debatable historical link to the civil war and his son with the improbable name Graham Baron Ash set about collecting artefacts with which to adorn said building. So it is a twentieth century reproduction of a Tudor building.

Soon after completing this, the building was donated to the nation via the National Trust. I'm not sure of the reason for the donation, but tax and death duty is very likely to come into it.

Meanwhile, I have been reading Sarah Wise's book The Blackest Streets which uncovers life in one of London's nastiest slums at the end of the nineteenth century. Lying in an area between some of the busiest roads, it was a dark network of paths - too narrow to even be described as roads - and appalling housing.

At the time, there was the idea floating around of 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor, the latter being thieves, drunkards and the lazy. This distinction was important, as the Victorian conscience demanded protection of the deserving from the weight of poverty. Uncovering a classic example of Orwellian double-think, Sarah Wise exposes the truth. Those charged with improving the health and sanitation of those who lived in the darkness were the same people who had least to gain from improvements because they were involved in the chain of house rents imposed on the residents. And, it turns out, those who ultimately owned the land were some of the nation's most wealthy individuals, literally acting as parasites on the poor. They claimed to be interested in the morality of the poor (which seemed to be largely about being publicly aghast about lax sexual behaviour, drunkenness etc, vices which are hardly exclusive to the poorest) whilst at the same time were those involved in creating the conditions which forced people to live in this squalor. These places were dens of vice and crime. But they were also places where people worked ridiculously hard to make ends meet, where people fought tooth and claw against the system which seemed to inevitably lead to a spiral of poverty leading to death in the workhouse. Indeed, at several points, those comfortable living members of the ruling classes sought to reduce the meagre social safety net payments to 'encourage the poor to work'.

So we have on one side the 'deserving rich' who are lauded for having saved a load of artefacts for the nation using some un-named source of wealth. On the other, we have the 'undeserving poor' who lived unbelievably bad lives making matchboxes and other poorly paid piecerate work whose lives amounted for so little that when the slums were cleared they were instantly forgotten and their names added to the mountain of bodies at the Somme.

Whilst the slums might have gone from London, the attitude remains. We are constantly bombarded by rich people finding ever more imaginative ways to throw pennies to the poor. We imagine that we are justified to live our lives of leisure and prosperity because 'we have worked hard for it and deserve it'. We try to convince ourselves that we should lead lives of 'positivity', patting ourselves on the back for doing things which in the final analysis amount to very little indeed.

The elephant in the room is that we are responsible for the structural sin that allows people like you and me to live lives of excess whilst other people have lives which amount to almost nothing. The theology of 'original sin' is unfashionable because people don't want to believe that people can be condemned before they've actually done anything.

But the truth is fairly easy to see. Most societies spiral into injustice whereby the few are supported by the poverty of the many. We live as we do because others live in poverty.

Unfortunately for us, justice eventually prevails. We're living on borrowed time.

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