An odd coalition: the CPAG and the Spirit Levellers have different views on poverty

Imagine the IEA issued a publication asserting that material hardship was no longer an issue in the developed world. The least well-off were enjoying such high levels of material comfort that we should cease to bother about how to improve them further. An excerpt might read:

“[S]urveys of the 12.6 per cent of Americans living below the federal poverty line [...] show that 80 per cent of them have air-conditioning, almost 75 per cent own at least one car or truck and around 33 per cent have a computer, a dishwasher or a second car. What this means is that when people lack money for essentials such as food, it is usually a reflection of the strength of their desire to live up to prevailing standards. You may, for instance, feel it more important to maintain appearances by spending on clothes while stinting on food.”

If this publication drew a response from the poverty advocacy community, it would surely be a ferocious one, denouncing it as a mean-spirited attempt to deny the existence of poverty, and to ridicule the plight of the poor.

There is a publication which effectively makes that case, but it does not come from the IEA. The above passage is actually from The Spirit Level, and serves to underpin the authors’ tenet that it is really inequality per se, not some confounding variable like material hardship, which causes the social problems they observe. The authors repeat time and again that absolute levels of wealth are more than sufficient, and call for freezing them at the present level.   

The outcry from the poverty advocacy crowd has not followed. On the contrary: Wilkinson and Pickett have been found among the guest authors of the Child Poverty Action Group’s journal, and CPAG Chief Executive Kate Green found only the warmest words for them.

An odd coalition. CPAG and the Spirit Levellers could barely be further apart in their positions. W&P believe that if people lack anything essential, it is not because they are too poor, but because status pressure and consumerism bully them into wasting their money on useless status symbols. CPAG is concerned about inequality as well, but above all, they believe that genuine material hardship continues to affect millions of families. CPAG considers hardship an explanatory factor of poor educational and health outcomes; W&P explicitly reject this and insist that the driver is inequality alone.   

In short, if you are a Spirit Leveller, you believe that expelling the upper income quintile from the country would make the UK a better place. It would leave the rest of us poorer, but relieved of status pressures and thus happier, healthier, slimmer, nicer, more trusting, less willing to shop and more willing to recycle. If you are a poverty campaigner, you will worry about the implications for poor children’s access to essential goods and services.

Why does this misunderstanding arise? Presumably, it has to do with W&P cloaking the implications of their anti-prosperity agenda by emphasising how useless increases in average living standards are. That sounds uncontentious – who cares about abstract averages?

But if we choose to end growth, whether on the grounds of climate hysteria or otherwise, we should admit that this would also cap the material comfort of the lowest income strata. The graph below plots OECD-countries’ GDP per capita against the prevalence of Material Deprivation, a consumption-based poverty measure. The correlation is far from perfect, but much stronger than most of the alleged associations shown in the Spirit Level.

Data gathered from OECD (2008)

It’s quite obvious from this and elsewhere that the ‘W&P’ approach really is about achieving equality at the expense of actual improvements in material standards of living and that the desire for the latter is mutually exclusive of the desire for the former. We see this type of thing from egalitarians constantly – the NEF were at it not long ago. W&P really do represent the worst kind of politics of envy in that it is actually destructive of the lives of the poorest. It rather reminds me of Popper’s interpretation of Plato or Heraclitus – an attempt to freeze society and prevent further ‘decay’, usually by a form of collectivist elite. Keep up the attack Kris!

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