fredag 14 september 2007

Fruit and veg handouts

Zoe Williams, writing in today's Guardian (Wednesday September 12, 2007), criticises the government over its policy to give all pregnant women £120 towards fresh fruit and vegetables. Her criticism is that the money will go to everyone and not just the needy. It is a pity that she did not dig deeper into this issue. She is right about questioning handouts for fruit and vegetables and baby bonds, etc, but wrong on the matter of means testing.

Much of the whole relationship between the state and the individual is means-tested. This is true of the entire tax and benefits system and it is part of the problem. Not only does it give no incentive for people to move out of the underclass - it helps to keep them in it. In this context these fringe benefits are marginal to the issue of what to do about Britain's growing wealth gap and the growing hereditary underclass.

If one takes a long view, it can be seen that the underclass first arose in England (Scotland has a different history) in the late middle ages. It was related to the break-up of the feudal system of land tenure following the Black Death, when land was enclosed for sheep and was no longer available for people to work.

The next stage came following the Reformation, when more land was enclosed and people were driven off.

The final stage was the period of agricultural enclosure in the years 1760 to 1840 when the last of England's peasantry was driven off the land. In Scotland, the Highland Clearances achieved the same purpose.

Once people were driven off the land they had no option but to work as agricultural labourers and live in dirt-poor circumstances or to move into cities, live in slums and work for subsistence wages. This was the situation that Marx formed his theories upon, but that is incidental since his analysis was faulty and could produce no lasting solution.

Successful welfare socialism in the years after World War 2 enabled most people to move out of the underclass and better themselves, but in the seventies and eighties, economic circumstances and government policies promoted the collapse of traditional British industry and the underclass is back. But the underclass has been an enduring feature of the British economic landscape for centuries. The thirty years after World War 2 were exceptional. Welfare socialism proved to be no more than a palliative that could not survive changing circumstances. It has lasted longer in some other countries but is under pressure there too. Other solutions are needed.

In this context, handing out potato vouchers is risible. What a pity that Guardian journalists fail to see the bigger picture.

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