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Socialist Review, November 1993

Hazel Croft

The real facts about the poor

From Socialist Review, No. 169, November 1993.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

The theory of the underclass – the idea that there is a growing pool of ‘unorganisable’ workers is a common one on the left today. Out of work or in part time casual work, living on run down estates, Involved in the black market economy, these workers, it is argued, have no common interest with their full time counterparts.

It is a picture of a section of society which is disenfranchised from trade union politics, the people most prey to the arguments of racists, at the mercy of drug dealers and debt collectors.

The rich have got richer and the poor have got poorer as class divides have polarised in Tory Britain. According to a recent report:

‘Graphs show that the mountain of people around the middle income bands in 1979 has had its top sliced off. People have been scattered from the middle of the income distribution towards the bottom and the top.’

But the growing gap between rich and poor is not a gap dividing the poorest sections of society from the rest, but between the richest and the rest. The richest 1 percent own 18 percent of Britain’s wealth compared to the bottom 50 percent who own just 8 percent.

The poorest groups in society are the unemployed, single parent families, the disabled and many of the elderly who live off the state pension alone. But there are also huge numbers of those in paid work who are poor.

According to a report of the Labour Party’s Commission on Social Justice:

‘Unemployment remains one of the most important causes of poverty, but a growing proportion of the poor earn their poverty. Low wages in Britain today mean a security guard working a 12-hour shift for £1.20 per hour – well below the levels prescribed by the Wages Councils which the government is now abolishing.’

Government statistics show that two-thirds of the population now have an income below average. Some 36.7 million people – 62 percent of the population – now live on less than the average earnings of £250 per week, compared to 59 percent in 1979.

Only 500,000 earn more than £1,000 per week. One third of a million families are currently in mortgage arrears. Nearly two and a half million people earn incomes low enough to qualify them for means tested benefits like Family Credit. Over one half of the population are unable to save more than £10 a week and/or insure the contents of their home.

These figures cut through the ‘underclass’ argument. The number of people working full time has fallen dramatically over the last 14 years. For example the number of people living in families with someone working full time fell from 35.2 million in 1979 to 29.7 million in 1990–91. The numbers in unemployed families rose from 1.4 million to three million in the same period, whilst those families where the wage earners are self-employed rose from 3.3 to 5.9 million.

But those out of work do not form a separate class or underclass, but are workers who are unemployed, hit by the recession. They do not form a distinct group with different interests to the rest of the working class.

Part time workers account for some 28 percent of the workers, four fifths of them are women. But these workers can be organised as part of the working class movement. Part timers are less likely to be in unions than full timers. But the level of union organisation depends on a whole number of factors like the size of the workplace or whether or not they work alongside full timers.

So the public sector union Unison, for example, has 42.9 percent of members who work part time, the GMB has 14 percent part timers and USDAW 25.3 percent. Union density – the proportion of workers in trade unions – while still much lower than for full timers, increased during 1992 from 21 to 22 percent.

The growth of the service sector has meant the increase in a whole number of jobs considered outside the traditional working class – such as part time work in the public sector – and yet it Is in these areas that union membership, particularly among women workers, has grown.

The key deciding factor is the level of struggle among those workers which can pull previously unorganised sections of workers into unions. Moreover when key sections of the working class fight back it gives confidence to the class as a whole – even the poorest sections.

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