Being poor in Britain in 2012 is brutal. You are more likely than not to come from a family where people are working, yet still despite your hard work, you cannot afford enough food to eat, or have to choose between heating your house and feeding your kids.
The last few years have seen your life get tougher and tougher. Your wages have fallen, 4.4% in the last year alone, yet your cost of living has risen by 47%. Your library has closed, and the waiting time to see your doctor is months rather than weeks. Childcare services for your children have been cut. Your housing benefit has been cut leaving your family £2000 a year worse off. Your rent is likely to be over half your income. You may be forced to leave your home and community and move far out of town in order to afford somewhere to live. You may well be employed on a 'zero hours' contract, which means your employer can simply send you home if there is not enough work. Yet if you try and leave this job, your benefits will be cut as punishment.
This is brutal Britain in 2012. Gandhi said that a society is judged by how it treats its weak and its frail. By that judgement Britain is fairing very poorly indeed. A report released by Oxfam this week describes the perfect storm of cuts and price rises that poor people are being forced to cope with. The poorest and most vulnerable in our society are being made to bear the brunt of the impact of the financial crisis and recession- targeting those who are least able to take it. The cuts in government services hit the poorest 13 times harder than the richest. They fall mainly on women, three out of four of those affected. Tax rises have hit the poorest harder than the richest too, as the main increase has been VAT. Poor people pay twice as much in VAT as a proportion of their income as rich people do.
At the same time, inflation for poor people is running at almost twice the national rate because of the big increases in the price of food and fuel. Food bills are 30% more expensive for the average family. Families like that of David and Catherine in East London, who have not had the heating on all winter and skip meals to be able to pay their mortgage.
Figures released yesterday show that a quarter of people living below the poverty line come from households where all the adults are working. In the UK there are five unemployed people chasing every job vacancy, yet those lucky enough to get a job have no guarantee of working their way out of poverty. The job they get is likely to be temporary, precarious and hard. Whilst we are told by business leaders that labour inflexibility is the problem in the UK, in fact those in work have less protection than in Mexico.
Yet the richest in society are getting a lot richer, and very quickly indeed. One in four FTSE 100 bosses saw their salaries rise by over 40% last year. Multi-million pound bonuses are still being paid out by the banks despite deep public rage and disgust. Inequality is growing rapidly, and at this rate will soon see the UK return to levels of inequality not seen since Victorian times.
It doesn't have to be this way. It is true that the country is in recession, but that does not mean there are not clear choices that a government can make as to who bears the brunt. Oxfam is part of the campaign for a Robin Hood Tax on the banks for example, which could raise £20 billion a year to invest in fighting poverty in the UK and abroad. Cracking down on tax avoiding companies could also raise billions more, to increase the minimum wage, invest in decent jobs and public services, reduce inequality and get our country going again.