If Only Commonspace, Or The Senior Lecturer, Understood What They Are Talking About


Another in our infrequent series of discussions about why politics is so screwed – plus, as an added bonus, an examination of whether the expansion of the universities was a good idea. The subject under discussion being whatever rise in poverty, or less than an acceptable standard of living at least, might have been over this past decade of Tory Austerity. The point about that subject being that it would help, aid even, if the people doing the complaining understood the numbers they themselves were drawing our attention to.

To give a little background, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation prepares a series of “minimum income standards.” The underlying idea is not bad, as with Adam Smith’s linen shirt. That you cannot afford a linen shirt does not make you poor. But if you live in a society where not being able to afford a linen shirt is a sign of poverty, you cannot afford a linen shirt, then in that society, by its standards, you are poor. Fine as something to work out which is what the JRF do. Ask a bunch of people well, what should people be able to do not to be considered poor in this gloried UK of today? Answers come back like everyone in the household having at least two pairs of shoes, the adults being able to have a meal out once a month – nothing fancy, pub carvery sorta thing – and an hour or two in the pub with a couple of drinks once a week.

As a listing of what makes up a minimally good life it’s just fine. As I’ve been known to point out it has its faults:

Which really only leaves two things. If this is the righteous amount that people should have for the good life then we must stop taxing people who earn less than this amount. Put the personal allowance (for both types of NI and income tax) up to £18,400 and we’re there. We do have the economic emancipation of women so couples are taxed separately and we’d pretty much deal with that £40k number as well.

Yes, this would mean rather less government all round but then we’ve not got a problem with that.

That reduction of taxation of the poor being the very thing which my analysis of this study over the past decade has achieved. That rise in the personal allowance to £12,000 or so is indeed – partly to largely – from my analysis. You know, that rise in the personal allowance that every lefty in the country has decried.

OK, but leave that problem aside. Now think of what is being said today:

Derived from JRF data by Commonspace, Credit commonspace

About which we are told:

As the table above shows, life has got much harder for those on benefits in the past 10 years, with benefits providing just one-third of what is required for meeting the minimum income standard for a single person, and just 58 per cent for a couple with children and 60 per cent for a lone parent. The state pension previously provided enough to meet the MIS, but are now 10 per cent short of what is required. Austerity combined with rising living costs had its toll.

That’s a Scottish not thinking very hard tank. Here’s the Senior Lecturer at Islington Technical College on it:

The right-wing love to say inequality does not matter. They also love to say that the Gini coefficient that measures inequality is improving. They trumpet as a result that in their opinion all is right in the world because people are now getting no worse off.

But, as many familiar with such data know, it is not revealing of the truth.

Hmm, well, OK. So, let us seek that deeper truth.

My point is a simple one: the right wing are wrong.

Markets are not making things better.

Austerity did not work.

People are worse off.

Real inequality is growing.

People are suffering.

And this in the supposed sixth richest nation on earth.

That’s not actually something we can derive from the data presented. It’s also not something which is true. But to stick with this data which is being used to test the contention.

I agree that minimum benefits, minimum wage, are falling further behind those minimum income standards. Thus the percentage provided is falling. But this can be produced in two different ways. One would be that Tory Austerity slashing at the incomes of the poor. Which is what the claim is. The other would be that the minimum income standard has been rising faster than incomes and or inflation. And it’s the second which we can immediately see in those numbers. The CPI (we should use that, not RPI, because the income numbers are offered post housing) has risen by 25% over this period. The MIS has risen by between 30 and 50%. It’s the MIS rising, not incomes falling. At least, that’s the first reaction anyone presented with those figures alone should and will have.

We’ve thus no evidence at all about markets, austerity, people being worse off nor inequality and suffering. We’ve only got evidence that people in general think that people should be living richer and better lives now than they were in 2008. Presumably – and do note this is a supposition, not a fact – because their own lives have got better over this time and they thus insist that so should those of others. Why else should people say the minimum income not to be poor has risen over this time if incomes in general haven’t?

Making that supposition entirely changes the message here but do note again that the reason is a supposition even if the fact, that it is the MIS which has risen faster than inflation, is there in the numbers we are presented.

About which we can say two things perhaps. The first being that no wonder the public sphere is buggered if think tanks can’t manage to grasp such basics, the second that perhaps that expansion of the universities wasn’t the bestest idea ever. For if neither of them can understand the data they themselves are presenting then….

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Bottom line, a hypothetical change under which, say, people who can figure out how to work an iPhone got richer than those who cannot, would mean “real inequality is growing” but would not mean “people are worse off” or “people are suffering” (based on that change alone). Murphy’s observation that government cash does not cover the percentage of living expenses as it used to, is a manifesto that, once granted, transfer payments must never be diminished. Only more, more, more. It begs a study of whether they achieved anything positive in the first place. We could also all agree that… Read more »


Hold on, as a single person I “need” £213 a week to not “be poor”, *excluding* rent??? That’s 25% more than my current outgoings *INCLUDING* rent! And I can afford to lazy around most of the day around reading interweb forums, writing code, and drawing maps.