Source: China State Council Information Office
October 17 was the annual United Nations’ International Day for the Eradication of Poverty – but it went largely unnoticed in Britain, as so often in the past.
The fight against poverty has barely figured in political and public debate since the defeat of the Labour government in 2010. The downward trends in household and child poverty have turned upwards since the onset of austerity policies to pay for the bail-out of Britain’s banking and financial system.
The contrast with China could not be starker. There, poverty alleviation and the eradication of extreme poverty altogether have been central aims of state policy since the introduction of the “reform and opening-up” policy in the late 1970s. They remain the focus of much public and political analysis and discussion.
In 2016, the Conservative government in Britain abolished statutory targets for poverty reduction. The Child Poverty Commission is now the Social Mobility Commission, in a period when poverty is rising and social mobility is falling.
China has maintained and updated its targets almost continuously and established special mechanisms at every level from villages to the State Council to monitor, implement and sustain anti-poverty strategies.
Today, 4 million (30%) of British children live in families below the poverty line – defined as households with less than 60% of median income. The proportions for single-parent, black and ethnic minority children are even higher. For the population as a whole, 14 million or 22% of the population are in relative poverty, the majority of them in households where at least one person is working.
In China, on the other hand, there is the real prospect that absolute poverty – defined by the World Bank as disposable household income of less than $1.90 a day – could be eliminated by the end of 2020 despite the COVID-19 pandemic. This would be ten years ahead of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. So far, 850 million Chinese citizens have exited extreme poverty, accounting for more than two-thirds of the global total.
Meanwhile, Britain remains one of the 12 wealthiest countries in the world. It is also one of the more unequal in terms of income and wealth distribution, at least among developed economies.
The decline of inequality through much of the 20th century, brought about by government policies of high employment, progressive taxation and welfare provision, reinforced by strong trade unionism, was halted and reversed by government policies in the 1980s, the early 1990s and since the 2008 financial crash. Privatization, tax cuts for the rich and big business and the erosion of private-sector trade unionism have had the biggest impact.
The latest official statistics indicate that the top 10% of income-tax payers receive one-quarter of all the personal income in Britain, while the bottom 20% receive just one-tenth.
The richest 10% of the population own almost half of all financial and property wealth – and that’s without taking full account of the massive stocks of wealth held in secretive Swiss and British-ruled tax havens around the world – while the poorest 20% own less than 1%.
The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to accelerate the growth of inequality in Britain, according to the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), the Child Poverty Action Group and the Institute for Fiscal Studies.
The Swiss bank UBS estimates that the world’s billionaires increased their wealth by more than a quarter during the current coronavirus crisis to $10.2 trillion (£7.8 trillion) between April and July this year.
In Britain, the IPPR estimates that a doubling of unemployment to 10% by the end of the year – as forecast by the Bank of England – will hit lower-income groups the hardest. Its middle-range estimate is that cuts in jobs and hours will plunge more than 1 million extra people below the poverty line, including 200,000 more children.
Women, young people, black people and ethnic minorities will again be disproportionately affected. But that is primarily because they are over-represented among the lowest-paid, most precarious and most exploited parts of the working class.
Governments can and should implement a range of fiscal, economic and social policies to alleviate poverty and reduce inequality. Thus, Britain’s Communists and other left-wing forces in the labor movement have long called for a Wealth Tax on the super-rich, an end to tax haven regimes under British control, a levy on speculative financial transactions and a major shift from indirect taxes to progressive direct taxation.
The Communist Party in Britain will continue to fight for the transformation of society. By working with a range of left and progressive forces to campaign against poverty, Britain’s Communists aim not only to help achieve reforms, but also to win allies in the struggle for a deeper, more far-reaching social change.
Robert Griffiths is a former Senior Lecturer in Political Economy and History at the University of Wales and currently the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Britain.
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