1P—For are increasing
DURING the 1950s it was assumed that poverty in Britain had been eradicated. The 1960s made us aware that the problem still remained. The message of recent official figures is that in the 1970s the numbers of poor are increasing.
Towards the end of each year Parliament revises the minimum income levels for people who are unable to work. These are known as the supplementary benefit scale rates. The allowances vary between single people and married couples, and are age-related for children.
This means that the minimum income level — or, as people usually call it, the poverty line — varies according to family size and the agee of the children.
A married couple with two young children under five are awarded a minimum income of £31.75 a week plus their rent. In the figures which follow all the measurements are calculated using this minimum income level laid down by Parliament.
Just before Parliament rose for its summer break, the Government released data on the numbers of people in Britain living below the poverty line. In the three years since 1974 (the latest data are for 1976) the figures show that • There has been an increase of 123 per cent in the number of workers normally in full-time work earning less than the supplementary benefit poverty line.
• If we add the dependants of these workers the numbers living on an income from work which is below the official poverty line has risen by 147 per cent.
A similar massive increase has occurred in the numbers of un employed who. likewise. are found in the Government's own survey to be existing on an income below the minimum approved by Parliament. In the years since 1974: • The numbers of unemployed living below the poverty line have increased by 150 per cent. II There has been an 89 per cent increase in the numbers of the unemployed and their dependants surviving on less than the officially approved minimum income level.
If we translate the percentage increases into numbers the following picture emerges. The Government's own survey shows that 1,410,000 people were living below the poverty line in 1974. By 1976, the numbers had swelled to 2,280,000.
Of these totals 550,000 in 1974 were pensioners, and their numbers had risen to 870,000 three years later. We can, therefore, see that the majority of the very poorest in the community are now below pensionable age.
Over the same period of time the numbers of people who were normally in full-time work and earning less than they could get on the dole rose from 130,000 to 290,000. If we include their dependants then the totals rise from 360,000 to 890,000 respectively.
We hear a great deal about the numbers who opt for unemployment because it is to their financial advantage to do so. These figures give the lie to the great "scrounger myth" of the 1970s.
While the media have chased those claimants who are supposed to have opted for a life of inaction on the dole (and it would be unrealistic to assume that none had done so) they have missed a much more important story.
We could not have a more vivid demonstration of the power of the work ethic in our society than the fact that, on the last count, 290,000 wage-earners put in a full week's work and earned an income which brought their household finances to below what they would be entitled to from the Supplementary Benefit Commission if they were not working.
As well as the large army of people living below the official poverty line there are millions more drawing supplementary benefit to bring their income up to the State minimum level.
In 1976 there were a little over four million people depending for their livelihood and well-being on supplementary benefit payments. If we add to this total the numbers living below the official poverty line we have a total of 6,370,000 people living at or below the poverty line in Britain.
Before setting out what action has to be required, it is important to underline two important facts which emerge from these figures.
First, the numbers of poor have increased rapidly over the past few years. Secondly, poverty is wearing an increasingly young face. In other words a growing number of families with children are to be found among the ranks of the poor.
The increasing numbers of poor makes action that much more urgent. That poverty is increasingly found among children means that many of our measures must be aimed to help families with children. How can we do this?
The most important way of combating family poverty among those in work is to increase child benefits. Recently the Government has announced important increases in benefit. This
follows a concerted campaign to which the Catholic bishops made an important contribution.
Last April child benefits stood at £1 for the first child and £1.50 for all other children. Next April they will be increased to £4 per child. But this level is stilt Madequate.
Over the past few years families have lost out in three ways: • Although practically everyone is paying more taxes now than they did 10 years ago, the tax burden has increased even faster for families with children.
• While nobody has to be told that prices have been rising over the past few years, the prices of those goods on which families spend more of their incomes have risen even faster.
• Neither the increased tax load nor rocketing prices have been compensated by extra benefits. Since the war, pensions and other major benefits have been increased 17 times. In contrast, child benefits, or as they were called, family allowances, have been raised only six times.
On these grounds alone we can see that the /4 child benefit next year is inadequate. But on top of that the Government is planning a tax ambush on families. As mothers gain a £1 increase in their child benefits next April, dads (and some mums) will lose the rest of their child tax allowances.
This means that families with older children will be made worse off. The demand from all those who are trying to support families in Britain must be for a real increase in child benefits next April. At the moment the Government is planning to give with one hand and take as much, if not more, back with the other,
One of the urgent tasks in the next parliament will be to launch a programme to abolish poverty caused by low wages. This priority must be reflected in each of the major parties' election manifestos.
No political party has a set of policies which add up to a strategy against low pay. Periods of free collective bargaining and of incomes policy have come and gone. but the relative rewards of Britain's poorest workers have
remained very much the same.
Free collective bargaining and incomes policies have failed to stem the tide of the increasing numbers of working poor. The only strategy that has yet to be employed is the introduction of a
statutory minimum wage.
There is some support for such a move from a number of the larger trade unions. But the trade union movement, likc the employers' organisations, is clearly uncertain as to what will be the effect of introducing a statutory minimum wage, particularly at the present level of unemployment.
The political parties should, therefore, pledge that one of their first actions, if elected, will be to make a special reference on low pay to the Royal Commission on the Distribution of Income and Wealth.
NEXT WEEK: Hugh Faulkner of Help the Aged.