Poverty, immigration, cohesion – and words

Earlier this week the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published a landmark report about poverty in the UK.

David Orr

By David Orr, Chief Executive of the National Housing Federation

8 September 2016

Earlier this week the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published a landmark report about poverty in the UK.  It showed clearly the adverse impact poverty has, not just for the 13.5 million people directly affected (yes, 13.5m or 20% of the entire population) but for the whole social fabric and future economic success of the nation. At the launch I was hugely impressed by the commitment of JRF, platform speakers and the audience to solve this problem - a problem they believe can be solved in a generation.  Indeed, #solveukpoverty was trending during the day.

A couple of weeks earlier I hosted a small but very focused round table discussion with a group of senior people from housing associations across the country.  The purpose was to explore the impact on community and social cohesion of the vote to leave the EU and the apparent rise in hate crime in its wake.  Although different communities have experienced this differently, there was a clear thread running throughout the discussion.  That thread was that the referendum campaign and vote had not created the underlying tensions and dissatisfaction.  They only served to give it a focus and a voice.

One of these events was the result of four years of research and examination involving thousands of people and launched to the world through a huge event and substantial media coverage.  The other was a private conversation involving twelve people brought together at relatively short notice.  Both, in their different ways, tried to describe some of the experience of living in this country for those whom economic prosperity has passed by.  For me, both also raised profound questions not just about the issues but about the language we use to frame the debate.

And a lot of that language is toxic.  In some parts of our national media it appears impossible to use the word ‘benefit’ without adding ‘scroungers’ or ‘cheat’.  It goes way beyond the age old argument about ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor into vituperative attacks blaming the poor for their poverty.  One major consequence is that ‘welfare reform’ and benefit cuts are hugely popular in the country at large without any real understanding of the impact on people who are trying to make their lives work.  How else could the bedroom tax ever have been implemented?

There has been a torrent of comment which describes immigration and immigrants as uniquely problematic.  There was a strong undercurrent in the referendum campaign where ‘we want our country back’ was not about sovereignty of decision making but was a clear demand to ‘send them home’.  Any time we argue that we need more homes to be built, the online responses always include viciously worded comments to the effect that we’d have no need for new homes if all the immigrants were sent away.  And of course all would be well in the health service if we had no immigrants and benefit tourists (a group for whom there is no real evidence of its existence) making their unreasonable demands.

There is a temptation to say that none of this nasty rubbish matters – it is only words after all. I completely disagree.  There is a compelling need to understand the impact of immigration on communities which already feel marginalised and ignored.  There is an equal need to understand the inter-generational impact of poverty of income, poverty of assets and poverty of ambition and aspiration.  These are critical debates which have to be widely held and argued rationally if we are to make high quality long term decisions.

JRF is right to say that we can solve UK poverty and has come up with a range of sensible measures which would take us a long way to doing so.  However, it will only happen with political will and that needs the demand, or at least the consent, of us all.  If we continue to frame the debate as “the good people – us” against “the bad people – them” not only will we fail to solve poverty or end the housing crisis but we will make it impossible to have the rational debate we desperately need about the kind of nation we want to be and that nation’s place in the world.

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