onsdag 12 mars 2008

Budget to address child poverty

Today's UK budget is being billed as "giving priority to tackling child poverty." Apparently, ministers define the child poverty target as ensuring "no children live in a household earning less than 60% of national mean income, before housing costs".

How strange to exclude housing costs, since this is the biggest single living expense, but then the whole concept of poverty definitions is dubious. I used to work in Catford, a poor part of South London. Yet customers who were obviously not well off had their trolleys piled high with expensive prepared junk, costing several times more than the basic ingredients. Like tinned potatoes, for heaven's sake. The food industry wants people to buy these things, which are called "added value products", though really they are subtracted-value products.

This stupidity is not confined to poor working class families. The middle classes are no better. Marks and Spencer's branches now have yards and yards of shelf space filled up with expensive ready-made meals - priced at around a fiver for 50p worth of goods, most of the cost being preparation, packaging and profit. It is, however, a peculiarly British phenomenon; you can buy junk food in a Swedish supermarket like ICA or Konsum, but the shelves are mostly filled up with normal basic things which means that you don't have to walk round and round the shop looking for something edible.

To return to the budget. Given the government's commitment to the tax system in essentially its present form, nothing that the chancellor can do will have more than a marginal effect on poverty, since the tax system itself is a major cause and any changes are mere tinkering. But what is really disturbing is that, after eleven years in opposition, the Conservatives have failed to come up with any radical alternatives. They can't even see there is a fundamental problem and so are in practice conniving in perpetuating this state of affairs.

Surely the row over "non-domiciles" and the revelations about tax havens show that the system is a relic of a bygone age and needs to be consigned to the dustbin of history? Yet, to judge from comments by journalists and recent letters in the papers, one might think that the present tax system was part of the natural order.

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