Reality of poverty: the left denies it, the right ignores it

I was on BBC Good Morning Ulster last week discussing figures which show that two thirds of people in Northern Ireland (a comfortably greater share than in Great Britain) have pay-TV services – i.e. extra subscription channels of various kinds.

This is odd, of course, because apparently over half the population (vastly more than in Great Britain) suffer ‘fuel poverty’, and indeed are ‘unable to heat their homes’.

This leaves a minimum of 15% of all households in Northern Ireland who are opting to pay for extra TV services (over and above the already existing multi-channel Freeview) but are at the same time unable to heat their homes…

Herein again we approach the problem of tackling poverty. The Left deny the problem – arguing essentially that only rich people have pay-TV. The Right ignore the problem – arguing that such figures, essentially, give them justification for doing so.

There are a few home truths, of course, which we don’t much like talking about. Firstly, it is simply not true that over half of households in Northern Ireland cannot afford to heat their homes (it is merely true that energy prices are a bit higher here and thus take up a higher proportion of household income – but then we pay lower domestic taxes and no extra water charge). Secondly, poverty rates are no higher in Northern Ireland than in Great Britain (surveys by the National Policy Institute consistently put them at about level, although the precise make-up of those on low income is different). Thirdly (as per the point I made on the programme which people struggle with but is demonstrably the case globally), people experiencing low income and/or social isolation use a decision-making process far different from the one middle-class people (including anti-poverty campaigners) would expect, including placing a far higher premium on home entertainment than other people do.

I gave an example from this book of a North African who only worked half the year, and even then for the bare minimum. He could not afford to clothe his family and they were to all intents and purposes malnourished, and yet they had a television. The same story is found across the world, from Latin American favelas to Indian farms. Televisions are deemed an ‘essential’ (when asked, owners usually say this is because they provide entertainment to pass the time and perhaps even a sense of broad social belonging), whereas shoes or even fruit aren’t. Move that to the Western World and you will find pay-TV given a premium over books, courses and such like – not a completely ludicrous choice, not least because (as was pointed out on the programme) pay-TV may be part of a cost-efficient bundle with other services (most obviously broadband).

What this tells us, as I argued last week, is that we spent far too long tossing around meaningless statistics, and far too little time really grasping the decision-making processes of those facing choices on low income. It is easy some of us to miss the very obvious point that motivations and even emotions are involved in those processes which many of us (particularly professional people with wide-ranging qualifications and reasonable incomes) have never experienced. It is too easy to try to understand people on low income or suffering social isolation through charts and graphs and even having great conferences and documentaries about them. I do wonder if we shouldn’t spend more time actually speaking to them?


One thought on “Reality of poverty: the left denies it, the right ignores it

  1. harryaswell says:

    At 76 I, too, also live on a dangerously low income. However, I have a good lifestyle with Freeview TV. My TV licence is free!! I eat well and drink well when I want to. I seriously do not think there is “anyone” within NI who are genuinely poor, per se. I reckon those who say that they are are guilty of bad financial management. Stop smoking. Stop drinking. Stop gambling. Find a hobby that takes up most of your time.

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