The Poor Are Not to Blame for Poverty

Tory MP Lee Anderson’s claim that food bank use stems from personal failings is a pathetic attempt justify an economic system leaving millions hungry – and proves just how out of touch our political class really is.

Tory MP Lee Anderson who claimed that the reason people use food banks is because they ‘can’t cook a meal from scratch’ for ‘30p a day’ and ‘cannot budget’. (Parliament)

There are times when a politician says something so deeply patronising and utterly disconnected from reality that it cuts through and reveals the contempt they hold for those they rule over even more than weeks of policy announcements or statistics on price rises and wages.

There have been many cases over the years, but a recent entrant comes from the Tory MP for Ashfield, Lee Anderson, who claimed that the reason people use food banks is because they ‘can’t cook a meal from scratch’ for ‘30p a day’ and ‘cannot budget’. Just a few days prior, the Environment Secretary George Eustice, who took a break from being one of the more forgettable faces in the Cabinet to tell Sky News that the solution to the cost of living crisis was for the country’s poorest families to buy more own-brand supermarket products.

Leaving aside how condescending it is for millionaire politicians—Eustice is reportedly one of the wealthiest men in the cabinet—to lecture the country’s poorest on how to manage their weekly budgets, their comments were just plain wrong. 

At the core of the argument is the belief that poor people do not control, have not controlled, or are even incapable of being able to effectively control their own spending—unless, of course, they are instructed on how to do so from Westminster.

A glaring problem with saying people should be more economical and buy cheaper brands, though, is that they already are. Data Analytics group Kantar told me that while UK consumer goods were experiencing a six percent rate of price inflation, consumers were only paying four percent more at the tills—evidence that households are opting for the cheapest items in face of rising costs. In fact, as much as fifty percent of supermarket sales in Great Britain are own-label products, a surge on the figure recorded last year. 

That it is the poor themselves who know how to save rather than wealthy politicians ought to be obvious. The people best-placed to find and keep whatever money can be kept in their own budgets are those whose ability to feed themselves relies on them saving every penny possible.

Most people have cut and cut away at their spending already, but there’s a ceiling on how much you can save. As money saving expert Martin Lewis recently admitted, the scale of the cost of living crisis has gotten so bad, he’s ‘virtually out of tools to help people’.

And the scale of the cost of living crisis truly is massive. Petrol prices hit 160.2p per litre in March. Gas and electricity bills have gone up by fifty-four percent, or around £693, and are predicted to rise by a further forty percent again in October. Overall, inflation has been predicted to hit ten percent, the highest rate for well over thirty years, while wages are predicted to grow at half that rate. 

Those kinds of costs may seem insignificant to the wealthiest households, where they’re a drop in the ocean of their annual budgets. Meanwhile, for the poorest households, where the bare necessities like food and heat make up a much larger share of their spending, it is the difference between keeping their heads above water and falling into debt, poverty, and destitution.

Experts and charities have warned that the increase in fuel prices alone could drive millions into poverty—up to forty percent of adults are predicted to fall in fuel poverty alone. One investigation by National World found essentials like milk, cheese, eggs, butter, pasta, and more are seeing price hikes upwards of eight percent.

Campaigner Jack Monroe recently drove the Office for National Statistics to change the way it recorded inflation data, after pointing out that the poorest households often see the highest increases in the cost of buying food. As just one example, Jack cited how value rice in a local supermarket had shot up 344 percent in price in the preceding year, while many value brand products were discontinued altogether. 

Even before the current crisis, it was always more expensive to be poor. Roughly half of the working-age population spend more than a third of their income on housing, which disproportionately hits the worst-off. Working families face spending £113 per child per week on childcare, when the average weekly earnings for someone on minimum wage is just £294—almost half their income. Those in poverty have less access to bank accounts and secure credit, which can cost you up to £1,300 a year

The list goes on and on, and spans just about every section of the economy. As the American novelist James Baldwin once put it: ‘Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.’

Beyond everything—even how completely, painfully wrong they are—what rankles the most about Anderson and Eustice’s comments is that they reflect a view common among Conservative politicians and our ruling class, and were just the latest in a long line of remarks from that seek to place the blame for poverty at the door of those suffering it. 

Even companies are getting in on the action. Energy company SSE—the country’s third biggest supplier, which recently upgraded its profit forecasts to £1 billion for its latest financial year—told customers to save on heating bills by cuddling pets, eating hearty bowls of porridge and doing star jumps.

As Margaret Thatcher once explained it: ‘In Western countries we are left with the problems which aren’t poverty. All right, there may be poverty because people don’t know how to budget, don’t know how to spend their earnings, but now you are left with the really hard fundamental character—personality defect.’

Thatcher’s comments are an articulation of the same idea expressed in such crass terms by Tory MPs sitting today: that poverty is a personal failing, not a systemic issue. This worldview is pervasive and entrenched in the ruling class and across our media as a way to divert blame away from the economic system from which they profit—but the unfolding catastrophic decline in living standards should expose it for the lie it is.

It is not credible to attribute the 1.3 million people set to fall into absolute poverty in the coming year as a sudden and widespread personality defect sweeping the nation. It is the symptom of an economy rigged against working people—and recognising it as such and exposing the contemptuous falsehoods from MPs like Anderson and Eustice is the first step to confronting the inequality and poverty marking our society.