How politicians are cashing in on poverty

Campaigns against gambling machines and payday loans are the latest paternalistic signs of the new politics of pity.

Neil Davenport

Topics Politics

A new twist has emerged in the on-going demonisation of poorer communities. After nearly two decades of hectoring low-income households on their eating, drinking and child-rearing choices, moral entrepreneurs are now fixated on their personal finances.

Last year, Stella Creasy MP made a name for herself by targeting ‘payday loans’ company, Wonga. The new year began with a report by Fairer Gambling condemning high-speed, high-stakes gambling machines for sucking £5 billion from ‘poorer communities’. Lucy Powell, Labour MP for Manchester Central, declared: ‘I think it is a moral question to ask whether it is a good thing that betting companies are targeting the poor and whether government lets them.’

Fairer Gambling argues that bookmakers have deliberately targeted the poorest areas with the highest unemployment and poverty. For example, in east London’s Bethnal Green and Bow, some 45 betting shops saw £243million placed in bets on the machines, dubiously dubbed the ‘crack cocaine of gambling’, which offer quickfire casino games allowing players to stake up to £100 on a 20-second spin of the wheel. Anti-gambling campaigners use radical-sounding language and statistics to disguise rather old-fashioned moralising. They complain that the profits made by betting shops, known as the gross gambling yield, in the 50 poorest constituencies was just over £173million. It all sounds very right on, targeting big gambling organisations and their big profits made ‘on the backs’ of ‘the poor’, but it’s nothing more than paternalistic attempts to save ‘the poor’ from their own inadequacies.

Betting shops and gambling in poorer districts have always held a voyeuristic fascination for well-off moralisers. It has long been held as proof that ‘the poor’ are naturally feckless and impulsive people who prefer get-rich-quick schemes to the values of thrift and hard work. As Conservative MP for Wokingham, John Redwood put it, it is the ‘culture of the poor’ rather than betting companies that is to blame for gambling profits. Although Redwood’s predictable snobbery may be irksome, he at least places responsibility for gambling choices on the poor themselves. He recognises that, as morally autonomous individuals, it is they who decide to put coins into gambling machines.

For millions of people, gambling is also a pleasurable and often exciting pastime – why should governments prevent people from pursuing activities that cause no harm to anybody else? We should remind MPs that gaming companies are not forcing ‘the poor’ to depart with their meagre income at gunpoint. New Labour MPs desire to prevent people from gambling, to save them from their own sins, is far more reactionary and repressive than a bit of tut-tutting from a high-minded Tory.

Even so, Redwood has a point about gambling when he said ‘I put it down to the fact that poor people believe there’s one shot to get rich. They put getting rich down to luck and think they can take a gamble.’ Gambling is seen as a way out of poverty, reflecting a basic human need to improve material living standards and the increased choices that go with that. At root, there’s a typically New Elite irritation with people aspiring for more rather than simply being ‘poor but happy’. If there has been an increase in gambling, it is a pragmatic response to the problems caused by low wages and a stagnant economy. No doubt some people get into more debt through gambling, but it is the lack of means rather than morals that informs people’s choices. Further regulations on gambling would do nothing to address the problem of means.

The same is true regarding payday loans company, Wonga. There is no doubt that such operations aim to exploit people in a desperate situation and, consequently, can increase rather than solve debt problems. But Stella Creasy and others seem to think that the origins of poverty start with Wonga rather than with poverty wages and the increasingly temporary character of work in the UK. Furthermore, many households are in debt due to vastly inflated rent and mortgages completely out of sync with most people’s incomes. A far better way of increasing people’s outgoings would be for politicians to enable millions of new homes to be built, lowering rent and property prices. Of course, faced with an influential green lobby, that is a far harder policy to implement. It is much easier to target an unpopular spiv company such as Wonga than devise meaningful infrastructure policies.

Alongside all this, campaigns against Wonga and now gambling machines are also expressions of the new politics of pity. They provide opportunities for well-to-do figures to grandstand their ‘concern’ for ‘the poor’. Such public handwringing is not an expression of solidarity, of identifying with others’ difficulties, but of narcissism and self-regard. It also has a mile-wide authoritarian streak as well. The campaigns against Wonga and gambling companies take pity on those who make such ‘wrong’ choices and thus, like naïve children, must be protected from such bad influences and making bad choices. Such blatant forms of paternalism go beyond anything from old-fashioned conservatives and should be vigorously resisted.

The truly moral question here is whether it is right for governments and well-to-do campaigners to restrict the financial choices made by ‘the poor’.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics teacher based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

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Topics Politics


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