Advent has not started well for tens of thousands of latter-day equivalents of the Cratchit family, made famous in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Low-income families have been dealt a double blow by two major news stories, highlighting the growth in poverty – and questioning the Prime Minister’s commitment to increasing social mobility.
On Sunday, all four members of the Government’s Social Mobility Commission quit. The four, including a former Tory cabinet minister, stepped down in protest over what they termed the Government’s lack of progress towards a ‘fairer Britain’. Meanwhile, a major report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation published today shows a significant worsening of poverty amongst children and families.
Bob Cratchit, of Christmas Carol fame, has come to symbolise poor working conditions, especially long working hours. According to a comment by his wife, Cratchit worked for 15 shillings a week at a rate of three pence an hour for 60 hours per week, and as a result faced a constant struggle to put food on the table and keep his family out of poverty.
Today’s stark figures paint an equally troubling picture, of growing numbers of families struggling to make ends meet – including increasing numbers with someone in paid work.
Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that almost 400,000 more children in the UK were living in poverty last year compared with 2012-13, the first sustained increase in child poverty for 20 years. It warned that decades of progress were at risk of being unravelled amid weak wage growth and rising inflation.
The Foundation point to a triple whammy of factors leading to the growth in poverty: increasing levels of employment are no longer reducing poverty; benefits and tax credits for low-income families are falling in real terms; and rising rents leave more people struggling to meet the cost of housing. As with Bob Cratchit, low pay is a very significant driver of poverty. Four out of every five households in in-work poverty includes at least one person paid less than £9.75 an hour.
The squeeze in incomes for the poorest fifth of the population is starting to have serious long-term consequences for diet and health. As household budgets are cut, just one in seven low-income families are now able to afford to eat the recommended amount of fruit and vegetables each day. At the same time, figures from the Health Survey for England have shown a troubling increase in levels of anxiety or depression amongst the poorest families.
In his resignation letter, Alan Milburn, chair of the Social Mobility Commission challenged the Prime Minister to commit sufficient support to increasing social mobility. “I do not doubt your personal belief in social justice, but I see little evidence of that being translated into meaningful action.”
Meanwhile, the JRF chief executive, Campbell Robb, said: “These worrying figures suggest that we are at a turning point in our fight against poverty. Political choices, wage stagnation and economic uncertainty mean that hundreds of thousands more people are now struggling to make ends meet.”
In A Christmas Carol, the fate of Scrooge was inextricably linked with the fate of Bob Cratchit’s ailing son, Tiny Tim. If Scrooge does not change his miserly ways, Tiny Tim is sure to die.
As this weekend’s double blow reveals, the fate of the countless thousands of modern-day equivalents of the Cratchit family is no less inextricably linked with the requirement of the Government to change its ways, and to take meaningful action to heal the yawing social divisions of today.
This blog first appeared on the Christian Today website.