The UK has a very high level of income inequality compared to other developed countries.
Households in the bottom 10% of the population have on average a disposable (or net) income of £9,644 (this includes wages and cash benefits, and is after direct taxes like income tax and council tax, but not indirect taxes like VAT). The top 10% have net incomes almost nine times that (£83,875). As can be seen from the graph, income inequality is much starker at the top of the income scale, with the group with the 9th highest incomes making only 61% of the top 10%’s income.
Inequality is much higher amongst original incomes than disposable incomes with the poorest 10% having on average an original income of £4,436 whilst the top 10% have an original income 24 times larger (£107,937)1.
UK Income Inequality The UK has a very high level of income inequality compared to other developed countries. Households in the bottom 10% of the population have on average a disposable (or net) income of £9,644 (this includes wages and cash benefits, and is after direct taxes like income tax and council tax, but not indirect taxes like VAT). The top 10% have net incomes almost nine times that (£83,875). As can be seen from the graph, income inequality is much starker at the top of the income scale, with the group with the 9th highest incomes making only 61% of the top 10%’s income. Inequality is much higher amongst original incomes than disposable incomes with the poorest 10% having on average an original income of £4,436 whilst the top 10% have an original income 24 times larger (£107,937)1.
Well now, I have had the drugs and they worked for a while, but they don’t permanently fix the problem.
Personally I have tried everything from self-hypnosis to mediation and these techniques work for a while, but the effectiveness tends to be temporary. Having said that, anything that works even for a while has got to help .
The University of Oxford’s department of psychiatry, the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, also released research last year that found the MBCT course reduced the risk of relapse into depression by 44%. It adds to emerging evidence showing its effectiveness for treating generalised anxiety disorder and other mental health conditions.
As part of mental health awareness week, the Guardian posted a callout asking for those with mental health concerns to share their views on the effect of mindfulness on their wellbeing. More than 200 people responded.
Gina Rose, 51, from Basingstoke, who attended an MBCT course through the NHS, replied, saying that she used to get completely overwhelmed by her thoughts, succumbing to fear and depression caused by a childhood trauma. “Mindfulness didn’t take away these feelings completely, but it made them not overwhelming,” she says. “Over time, as I saw thoughts arise I acknowledged them and worked on self-compassion for having them in the first place. All this meant was that I didn’t end up feeling like death whenever depression came knocking.”
Kyle, 56, from London, was introduced to mindfulness in 1991 by his therapist, during a period of anxiety and depression. “It had a surprisingly rapid effect on me, and then levelled out to a steadier climb. If you’ve been breathing badly, with anxiety, you’re causing adrenaline to course through your nervous system, creating a mind-breath-panic feedback loop. This escalates to the point where it is enervating and exhausting. The gain from slowing down and being conscious of your breath was almost immediate.” Once this was achieved, Kyle could explore the reasons for his anxiety.
Mike, 56, from London, was recommended mindfulness meditation by a counsellor to help deal with a generalised anxiety disorder, and found it more effective than antidepressants. “It won’t work for everyone, no doubt, but I have anxiety that isn’t very severe. It certainly makes sense that spending 10 minutes a day relaxing and focusing on your thoughts, feelings and sensations would help you feel more present. I found it more useful than the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) I was prescribed by the NHS, in any case.”
Not everyone had such positive experiences. Tom, 42, from Lancashire tried dance-based mindfulness through the NHS, and also experimented with breathing techniques. “My mind always slipped back to listening to the music, and the lyrics. Breathing exercises make me more anxious … I seem to be unable to meditate. My mind is very busy, and I just end up thinking about how I should be meditating, with all sorts of other thoughts whizzing by as well.”
Tom feels that when mindfulness fails, the blame is often placed on the person who is practising it. “‘Don’t you want to change?’ That’s what I kept on being asked. Of course I do, but I know where my mental health issues come from. I have been through some very traumatic experiences, and I need to tackle them.”
For some, mindfulness not only doesn’t work, it also may make the problem worse, an issue raised by psychologists Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm in their book, The Buddha Pill: Can Meditation Change You?, which argues that we need to look into the “dark side” of mindfulness.
Huck, 54, says that with practice, the mind is freed of both positive and negative thought patterns. This can allow problems to be put into a broader context.
But, he adds, the vastness of the mind can have a depressing effect on some. “This is because when we slow our thoughts down, they may play out in a more detailed and specific way. This can be useful with positive thoughts, but it can be damaging when we are in a depressed mood. The tone can become self-destructive and a sense of hopelessness may emerge.”
Helena, 52, from Ireland, says that if someone claims that it makes them feel worse, they shouldn’t be told by their psychiatrist to persist. “This happened to me. Also, I was made me feel that if I wasn’t feeling better, it was my own fault for not sticking with it. Ironically, I believe mindfulness should be started when a person is well. Or at least well enough to endure some psychic discomfort.”
Some also wonder whether mindfulness is more effective for certain mental health issues. Ian, 40, from Nottingham says: “I’d recommend it to recovering and recovered people to maintain good times and as a coping strategy but people have to be quite stable, mentally strong and with other forms of support in place. It’s not for people in acute states, in crisis, going through major stresses or in severe depression.”
Annemarije, 18, from Derby, who has tried mindfulness through the NHS as part of CBT, says: “It can help with neuroses like anxiety, depression and maybe obsessive compulsive disorder, but it might be tricky to apply to people who suffer from illnesses that feature psychosis. If my dad (a bipolar-schizophrenic) can’t be bothered to take his pills now and then, I’m not sure if he’d be up for sitting down and practising mindfulness.”
Despite the fact that some struggled with mindfulness (or it simply didn’t help with their issues), the overall message was that if you are given proper support then you have a higher chance of finding mindfulness beneficial.
Many of those who replied to us stress that a good teacher is essential, something noted in this year’s mindfulness all-party parliamentary group’s interim report, Mindful Nation UK.
Tracey, 46, from Bromley says: “The UK guidelines for mindfulness teachers requires rigorous and committed training. If the teacher doesn’t adhere to these guidelines then mindfulness in mental health will not be effective.”
There was also a general consensus that you should approach mindfulness as a tool for recovery but not see it as a cure-all. Dr Sarah Maynard, 33, from Tunbridge Wells, says: “The difficulty comes when people think it is a panacea. As with any therapeutic approach it is not right for everyone, and not right for people in the midst of significant problems … Mindfulness is not something we can simply ‘plug into’ to fix ourselves, it’s a fundamentally different way of approaching our difficulties and our lives, and is a practice that takes time to develop. Eight-week courses run by appropriately trained providers are the perfect opportunity to develop understanding and practise this approach.”
Jeannie Mackenzie, 65, from Scotland, describes it as a significant aid in her toolbox, which can “help us stay well, along with good food, exercise and connection with others”. For others, it can also be used alongside medication or other forms of therapy.
The most important thing, though, as pointed out by nearly all respondents, is to follow what feels right for you. Craig, 46, from London, says: “There is no doubt in my mind that mindfulness can be a powerful tool for dealing with personal issues and managing stress, but it’s only one of many techniques and strategies for coping. A walk in nature, time with friends, a gentle run or reading a good book can achieve very similar results … People need to adopt a strategy that best suits their personality and the issues they face, which calls for a certain amount of trial and error.”
In France it could soon be illegal to discriminate against people in poverty. Under proposed legislation – already approved by the senate and likely to be passed by the chamber of deputies – it would be an offence in France to “insult the poor” or to refuse them jobs, healthcare or housing.
Similar laws banning discrimination on the grounds of social and economic origin already exist in Belgium and Bolivia, but the French version is said to be the most far-reaching. Anyone found guilty of discrimination against those suffering from “vulnerability resulting from an apparent or known economic situation” would face a maximum sentence of three years in prison and a fine of €45,000 (£32,000).
It is easy to judge the proposed French law as showing the worst excesses of the state, or to bemoan the practicalities of how difficult it could be to implement. But most of us are content to outlaw discrimination on the grounds of race, religion, or sex. Is it so ridiculous to add poverty to that list? And if it does feel ridiculous, why is that?
Whether it’s the discrimination of people in poverty or how government should respond to it, this is not a problem just for other countries. “People think that because we are poor, we must be stupid,” Oréane Chapelle, an unemployed 31-year-old from Nancy, eastern France, told Le Nouvel Observateur. Micheline Adobati, 58, her neighbour, who is a single mother with no job and five children, said: “I can’t stand social workers who tell me that they’re going to teach me how to have a weekly budget.” One study reported by The Times found that 9% of GPs, 32% of dentists and 33% of opticians in Paris refused to treat benefit claimants who lacked private medical insurance. Doctors say they are “reluctant to take on such patients for fear that they will not get paid”.
Does any of this sound familiar? These are attitudes – and even outright discrimination – that have been growing in Britain for some time. You can hear it in stories about local authorities monitoring how much people drink or smoke before awarding emergency housing payments. Or when politicians respond to a national food bank crisis by saying the poor are going hungry because they don’t know how to cook. It is there in the fact that it’s now all too common for landlords to refuse to rent flats to people on benefits. Britain is front and centre of its own discrimination of the poor – whether that’s low-income workers, benefit claimants, or the recurring myth that these are two separate species.
Economic inequality cannot survive without cultural prejudice. The media and political rhetoric surrounding the new round of cuts – from the benefit cap to child tax credits – shows this well enough. Benefit claimants “slouch” on handouts as hardworking taxpayers toil away to pay for them. Families on benefits should reproduce – or “breed” – as little as possible. Benefit sanctions – a system in such dire straits that Iain Duncan Smith’s own advisers have warned that it needs to be reviewed – are based on the very premise that the feckless poor need an incentive to get themselves out of poverty.
It is reflective of the success of the demonisation of people on low incomes or benefits that discrimination against these people could be seen as less damning than when it happens to other groups. Equally, to believe that “the poor” do not deserve protection from such prejudice buys into the myth favoured by our own government: poverty is a personal choice that the individual deserves to be punished for.
Perhaps it’s unwise to admit it, but one of the challenges during a budget speech is to stop your mind from wandering. Even an address of astonishing political audacity – as George Osborne’s was – has its longueurs, its moments when the stats are coming in such a blizzard, the borrowing projections merging with the annual growth percentages, that the brain, briefly blinded, looks elsewhere.
On Wednesday, mine wandered to Philadelphia. Not the city itself, but rather the Republican national convention held there in 2000. They gathered to anoint George W Bush as their nominee and laid on a spectacle that had one striking feature. Though only 4% of the delegates in the hall were black, one headline speaker after another was either African-American or from some other identifiable minority.
Primetime slots were given to Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, obviously, but the three co-chairs also happened to be a black Oklahoman, a Latino Texan and a white single mother. They found room for a gay congressman, while music came from Harold Melvin and Chaka Khan (African-American) with a cameo from Jon Secada (Cuban).
The whole effect was so brazen, it was almost comic. (One reporter likened the extravaganza to the Black and White Minstrel Show.) But the political logic was clear. The Republicans didn’t expect huge swaths of black American voters to end their historic allegiance to the Democrats and join them. They knew their prospects among Latino and gay Americans were limited. But those groups were not the target audience.
What Bush wanted to do was reassure white, suburban, swing, or floating, voters – especially women – that the Republicans had lost their harsh edge. That they were no longer so mean-spirited that a vote for them made you a bad person. The diverse faces on show at Philadelphia were there to salve the consciences of white soccer moms hesitating before backing Bush.
Which might explain why the memory of it returned on Wednesday. For a similar dynamic was at work. Who was Osborne appealing to with his announcement of a “national living wage”? He knows that precious few of Britain’s lowest-paid workers are set to rally to the Tory banner any time soon.
No, the voters Osborne wanted to reach are those for whom the Conservative brand is still tainted, those who may be doing quite well themselves, but who still associate the Tories with selfishness and even a callous disregard for the poor. Osborne was making a long-term bid for those votes. He knows they already trust him to have a cool head. Now he wants them to believe he has a warm heart.
This calculus is not new. It underpinned the modernisation project on which Osborne and David Cameron embarked a decade ago. When 2005-era Cameron spoke of “compassionate Conservatism” it was not the poor he was wooing. He wanted the votes of those who care about the poor, or more accurately those who don’t like to think they’re the sort of person who doesn’t care.
If that sounds cynical, that’s only partly because – to quote the Resolution Foundation, the group name-checked by Osborne when he announced the policy – the “national living wage” is a misnomer. Now that tax credits are to be taken away, you couldn’t actually live on it. It’s simply a welcome boost to, and relabelling of, the regular minimum wage. With unassailable chutzpah, Osborne has co-opted a halo brand that is not his – the living wage – in the hope that some of its glow will shine on him.
There is a deeper reason for scepticism. Osborne’s generosity was very carefully rationed. His judgment on who should be helped was not based not so much on need as political value. At its most obvious, there was the now-familiar bias against the young, who don’t vote, in favour of the old, who do. But this is about more than just voting blocs. Running through the chancellor’s decisions was a judgment about who the public will deem deserving and who undeserving.
Privately, the prime minister says pensioners have to be protected because they cannot change their circumstances. Which implies that the 20-year-old who will continue to work on the existing, miserly minimum wage, and is soon to be denied housing benefit and the possibility of a maintenance grant for study, is master of all he surveys, and only in his current situation because he has chosen not to change it.
It’s not important whether Cameron or Osborne truly believe this. What matters is their assumption that the voters believe it. They are gambling that Britons have empathy for pensioners and underpaid over-25s, but little for the young, for those on incapacity benefit, or on a low income with more than two children and for those who work in the public sector – all of whom were hit hard by the budget.
The cynical person here is Osborne himself. He is making a judgment about the limits of sympathy the majority of the electorate have for those falling behind. He has seen the shift in public mores, from the Cathy Come Home era of half a century ago to the Benefits Street culture of today, in which the poor are just as likely to induce anger as compassion.
And what compassion there is, Osborne has learned not to take too seriously. He doubtless remembers those 80s opinion polls which for years showed Britons insisting they regarded mass unemployment – the issue then championed by Labour – as the prime challenge facing the country, only for those same voters to re-elect Margaret Thatcher again and again.
Osborne has surely concluded that you need to do just enough to show you care – and then you can get away with plenty. Witness the inheritance tax giveaway that will take nearly £1bn a year out of the public purse by 2020 and which hands the children of those with assets a big slab of untaxed, unearned income.
In the supermarket trolley of Osborne’s budget were stashed a variety of such luxury treats, but he concealed them by putting a conspicuously organic, free range item – his “living wage” plan – on top.
Labour should be watching and learning. It would be a mistake to conclude the British public is uncaring. But nor can Labour make its pitch to the electorate on empathy alone. Voting is not an act of charity, but of self-interest – even if that self-interest includes the kind of society you want to live in. Voters want to know they can trust you to run the economy – and if you can be kind to the less fortunate, the deserving ones at least, then that’s a very pleasant bonus. But it’s that way around – and George Osborne knows it.
Camila Batmanghelidjh doesn’t text. Chronically dyslexic, the plethora of electronic means of communication, second nature to the young people she works with, is anathema to the children’s campaigner and founder of Kids Company. I found this frustrating when I was getting to know her, over a decade ago, first as a journalist researching a book on childhood and later as a volunteer for the charity. Wasn’t it rather queenly to expect a personal audience in this frantic and impersonal age? But I came to recognise that this was her gift: there were no fob-offs or polite ambiguities with Batmanghelidjh, no compromise with – often entirely pragmatic – convention, no fools suffered gladly either. And when she was with you, she really was with you.
I can only imagine what it must have felt like to sit in a room with her as a furious, dislocated, damaged child of the kind she found on the streets of south London, whom she fed, clothed and educated when no other social service would or could. “A child who has been terrorised and neglected isn’t going to feel threatened by punishment,” the Iranian-born psychotherapist explained to me. “Loving care surprised them more.” She recognised that love is an action.
On Friday Batmanghelidjh announced that she is to step down after nearly 20 years at the head of Kids Company, the charity she founded in 1996, which specialises in therapeutic support for severely abused and traumatised children. She accused politicians of playing “ugly games” after it was revealed that the Conservative government has signalled an end to its £5m annual funding, with the forfeit for further assistance set as her resignation and that of the charity’s chairman, broadcaster Alan Yentob. While official sources briefed against her, claiming that funds had not been properly accounted for and that the social impact of the charity’s services was in doubt, she dismissed it as a callow attempt to discredit her. Kids Company is now facing severe cutbacks if it is to survive, leaving thousands of vulnerable young people without support.
Ironically, the first time I encountered Batmanghelidjh in public, she was standing next to David Cameron. It was 2006, and the newly elected Tory leader had just delivered his infamous hug-a-hoodie speech. That mocking moniker, which of course he did not suggest, is now so well-worn that it’s easy to forget how groundbreaking it was both for the inveterately punitive Conservative party and indeed for any politician to boldly reference “love”. Batmanghelidjh was instrumental in that radical repositioning.
So it is baffling to see the same Tory leader apparently letting Kids Company swing for the sake of £5m. It’s no secret that Batmanghelidjh has annoyed plenty of people over the years, both on the left and the right, most recently with her criticism of the UK’s child protection system as not fit for purpose. She has been attacked for her unconventional methods and refusal to countenance the bureaucratic strictures of state care that can hamper swift intervention. My understanding is that she is not always the easiest of people to work for, mainly because her tunnel vision means that necessary conventions such as funding reserves and staff organisation are overwhelmed by crisis-to-crisis management.
It’s baffling too because Kids Company has enjoyed much high-profile support over the years, and indeed many Tory and City donors. With her bright turbans and dazzling charisma, Batmanghelidjh is a colossally successful networker and fundraiser. But the day-to-day running of the centres was far from glitzy. Many of those who attend are volatile, and staff are regularly threatened. I’ve heard plenty of third-sector sceptics conclude that her policy of loving kindness was naive. But I saw at first hand someone who knew how to get things done, and who was remarkable for the immediacy with which she cut through street swagger to reach an unhappy child.
At Kids Company, I met many young people who had referred themselves to the service. The majority had not been parented in any conventional sense, and they were often homeless. I remember Batmanghelidjh spending a frustrating afternoon shuttling between state services as she tried to find a bed for a girl who had run away from her abusive stepfather. On another occasion, security staff waited anxiously at the door of her cramped office while she spent hours talking gently to a raging teenager who was threatening to stab a fellow client over some imagined slight.I spent most of my time with a boy called Ashley. Just 15, he was already a small-time drug-dealer with a history of gun-related violence. Batmanghelidjh helped him come off skunk and found a sympathetic private tutor to make up his lost years of schooling. The last I heard, he was living happily with his girlfriend and studying for a qualification in sports management.
In 2005, the first children’s commissioner for England, Al Aynsley-Green, marked his appointment by warning of a national ambivalence towards children, with adults investing enormously in the young people with whom they are intimately involved while remaining at best equivocal and at worst fearful towards those growing up on the margins. Batmanghelidjh excelled at bridging that mistrust, preaching her gospel of empathy and emphasising that the consequence of so many unloved children was a distortion of the “emotional economy” of the whole country. At a time when further austerity can only serve to fragment society further, we need that message more than ever.
Earlier this week, a UN report called on the government to reconsider its deep welfare cuts, just as Iain Duncan Smith announced he was scrapping the 2020 child poverty target. This was denounced by Labour as the obituary for compassionate Conservatism. The treatment of Batmanghelidjh and Kids Company offers just as chilling a coda. Of course, the trajectory of a single charity has its peculiar complexities, but the broader symbolism is devastating. If this is what child protection looks like under a majority Conservative government, God help the child.
Last week, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) released figures showing that, between 2010 and 2013, a third of the UK population experienced income poverty. During this four-year period, 19.3 million people had a disposable income of below 60% of the national median at some point. These figures illustrate how millions of people are treading water, struggling to keep afloat and afford the very basics. Crisis loans and food banks are real.
In the wake of the election of a Tory majority government, it almost feels like the thing to do is to stop banging the same drum, to stop highlighting these issues. Yet here we are. Turning our heads away from people’s current experience of poverty – and what lies ahead – just isn’t an option.
As a senior teacher and a writer for this publication, my income is such that I can afford life’s luxuries. I own my own home and car. I can afford meals out and holidays that take me further than Europe’s shores. I don’t have to face the daily humiliation of wondering if I have sent my children out into the world in clothing that reveals reduced circumstances, and with not much in their bellies. Note the agency in these sentences; I am one of the privileged few. Yet the woman I am today wouldn’t exist without the welfare state.
It’s become almost passe to write that the Tories are dismantling our society’s safety net and pushing millions further into poverty. And although, for some, this is keenly felt as an awful new normal, it remains abstract for others – a reality several steps removed. Not so for me. I grew up knowing what it is to feel stomach cramps as a result of hunger; to have a packed lunch for school that was simply bread and butter; to be so ashamed of my ill-fitting clothes that I avoided going out altogether.
As a young adult I have been homeless and only saved from experiencing life on the streets by women’s refuges. I have moved from jobseeker’s allowance to wages so low that living was only made possible through housing benefit and working tax credit. I have accessed legal aid and had a small insight into how the law can work for even the most vulnerable. And I could undertake my bachelor’s degree because, as a poor independent student, I didn’t have to pay more than £1,000 in tuition fees.
I am the product of a compassionate state, one that believes in the potential of all its citizens. For that I am supremely grateful and lucky. Yet even writing this seems brazen, as though admitting a failure on my part. Poverty is good at shaming you into silence.
A surfeit of humiliation and guilt attaches itself to poverty. How dare I have used the state to realise a better life for myself and the children I would later go on to have? But if the state isn’t concerned with the uplift of those on the lowest rungs of society, how does it view them? Are they simply the fodder needed to realise the 1%’s wealth accumulation?
In my mid-30s, I am no longer reliant on the welfare state – and haven’t been for some time. The truth is that for the majority of those who claim benefits, it’s a short-term measure, tiding them over in their time of need. Now I am comfortably middle-class, even with all the talk of the “squeezed middle”, I am buffered from the worst the government has in store. Yet it all feels like one unfortunate calamity away, its proximity unnervingly near, made real by the daily struggles of younger family members who are trying to recover from childhoods in care, who have few or no qualifications and work on zero-hour contracts. When Iain Duncan Smith talks of “neighbourhoods blighted by worklessness” he fails to mention the poverty of opportunity in such areas, which his government’s policies will further entrench.
No one needs to remind me of the absolute necessity of our welfare state and so I happily pay into it. My wider family in Nigeria – a country where benefits are non-existent and pretty much everything has been privatised – live in the type of poverty that takes seeing to believe. And despite knowing first-hand the difference between absolute and relative poverty, I don’t believe the existence of the former cancels out the debilitating reality of the latter. Poverty in Nigeria or the UK isn’t a choice. Framing it as such is a heartless red herring, waved about to make us believe that only when people are without clothes, food or shelter should we bother to give them a passing glance.
Now more than ever, we need a chorus of voices mobilised against the draconian treatment of society’s most vulnerable. We need the millions who have at one time or other in their life accessed the welfare state to believe that they aren’t failures for doing or having done so. We need to continue the argument, which says it is decent, good and right that the state steps in when all else fails. Because to continue down the path the Tories have so gleefully outlined means society will only become more divided and unstable.
Increasingly we aren’t framing poverty as the result of political forces: the privatisation of state assets such as energy and transport; the weakening of unions; the steady erasure of the welfare state. Instead, we internalise all the guff telling us that poverty is the inevitable result of an individual’s moral decrepitude. Though the wealthy have always spun being poor as a willing choice of the selfish, dumb and lazy, now, more than ever, society seems to be buying this message.
With all Labour’s chatter about failing to recognise the value of aspiration – as if only those who want to pay less tax have it – the party is running scared and away from the most vulnerable. It is an unsightly manoeuvre, one that comes off as grasping and shortsighted. It is important that they do not become complicit in a lie that claims the poor can be shamed and punished out of poverty.
My parents didn’t receive benefits when living in England, yet our poverty was no less degrading as a result; it is not more dignified to offer oneself as cheap, easily exploitable labour. The Tories must not win an argument that is immoral to its core: that accessing the welfare state is a sign of individual failure.