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Why Oxfam Is Right to Care About Poverty on Our Doorstep

13/06/2014 13:35 BST | Updated 11/08/2014 10:59 BST

It never comes as a massive shock to hear a Conservative MP dismiss a pesky little issue like poverty, but hearing Tory backbencher Conor Burns slam Oxfam's campaign to raise awareness of poverty in the UK - on the basis that it just was nowhere near as bad as in Africa - makes it clear how sickeningly out of touch politicians are with hunger and poverty in the UK.

According to the Trussell Trust, a major food bank charity, 13 million people live below the poverty line in the UK. A joint report this week from the Trussell Trust, Oxfam, and Church Action on poverty says that 2013 saw a massive demand for food banks and charitable help - more than 20 million meals were given out in the UK in 2013, more than double from the previous year.

This should horrify anyone in the UK, yet Burns seems to think Oxfam had somehow failed in its mission because "Most of us operated under the illusion that Oxfam's focus was on the relief of poverty and famine overseas." Right, because helping people "over there" is ok because it doesn't cast aspersions on a government that is clearly failing its citizens. Clearly, the Conservatives don't really want a spotlight shone on why poverty and hunger are rising in the UK - benefit cuts, unemployment, and zero-hour contracts being a few glaringly obvious reasons. But publicly objecting seems to fit with widespread moral judgement that many in power (whether politicians or the media) have about poverty.

Media headlines about benefit scroungers are incredibly familiar now, even though the statistics show that the true cost of false claims are nowhere near as gargantuan as some would have us believe. Equally pernicious are high-handed editorials that drone on about how Brits can't really be that poor if they can afford to sit in a pub, cigarette in hand, or go down to McDonald's or KFC.

Somehow, there's a bizarre idea of the nobility of poverty in developing countries. It's as if there's a better quality of poor person in India or parts of Africa - people in rags, probably with limbs missing, who beg pleadingly for a few coins.

It's true that by economic measures of poverty - which looks at how many people live below a particular financial threshold such as a dollar a day, there are more people in abject, grinding poverty in Mumbai than there are in London. But statistics of household spending shows overwhelmingly that whether you're in Bangladesh or Brazil, people without very much money often spend more on alcohol or tobacco than those who are better off think they should. Sometimes, this spending is at the expense of education or healthcare costs.

So what does that tell us? Rather than moralizing about how poor people everywhere shouldn't be helped unless they help themselves, the data is a lesson in humanity. Wherever we live, no matter what our circumstances, we aren't that different; it is hard for most of us to spend our money wisely. The only difference being that if you have a job, access to credit cards or an overdraft, and free healthcare, then you can continue to spend on holidays rather than saving for your pension, and no-one will judge you for it. Not unless you have the misfortune of being poor, that is.