Violence is not a noun that arrives meekly into a sentence. In fact, it is one that accosts the brain like a literary bombardment from the annals of a revolutionary organisation. It is explosive, cutting, and remarkable. So, to what phenomenon was Mahatma Gandhi referring when he spoke of ‘The Worst Form of Violence’? Given the choice of a thousand ways to take a life, you would not easily happen upon the answer to this question. Gandhi was referring to poverty.
I had originally intended to write this article about homelessness, in a thinly veiled jab at the current policies of Priti Patel, who seeks to deport rough sleepers who aren’t British citizens. This is one of the clearest demonstrations of Nativist sentiment that one could find, and it came straight from the mind of the British Home Secretary. By looking through the reeds of politics however, it became clear to me that there is a much simpler issue at play when it comes to analysing homelessness. The one thing that all homeless people have in common is that they live in deprivation. The reverse is not true however, not all people who live in destitution are necessarily homeless. This observation may seem rudimentary, but the distinction is an important one to clarify. When thinking about destitution, it is easy to reduce the problem to those people living on the streets, rather than those who are poor.
There are in fact 14.5 million people living in relative poverty in the UK, as well as 11.7 million in absolute poverty. In contrast, there are approximately 280,000 homeless people living in the UK. To reduce the issue of hardship exclusively to those people living on the streets would in fact only account for 1.9% of those living in poverty in the UK. It also seems proper to point out that the UK is an advanced democracy which is ranked 5th on the list of the world’s top economies. So how is it possible that such an advanced country can have 1 in every 5 people classed as impoverished?
As with many investigations of an economic nature, the answer to this question does not come in one part and is not entirely understood. Certainly, there are conditions which are necessary for someone to enter into this state, but the root cause is fundamentally different for each and every individual who has the misfortune to find themselves below the poverty line. It has been argued that some of the causes of indigence need not exist in the first instance and are fundamental problems in their own right. Examples include worklessness, unemployment and real wages that cannot compete with growing prices. A big part of the debate around hardship is benefit payments. Debate surrounding benefits has been thorough for many years, but the welfare system in the UK is drastically problematic. If I, for example, as an unmarried individual without children, were to apply for benefits, I would receive a maximum of £15,410 a year (assuming that I live in London). The relative poverty line stands at 60% of median household earnings and the median household earning in the UK in 2020 was a salary of £29,900. These numbers mean that to ensure I don’t fall below the poverty line; I must earn more than £17,940 a year. By a simple comparison, it is clear that taking benefit payments would necessitate that I entered hardship.
This conclusion should not come as a significant revelation; being on welfare payments and being poor are often synonymous phrases. Nonetheless, in broader terms, the choice presented to those in hardship is as follows: 1) you may choose to take benefit payments and enter relative poverty or 2) you may choose not to take benefit payments and enter absolute poverty. The inescapable problem of this system is that once individuals have reached a certain level of hardship, the paths available to them boil down to a choice of what kind of poverty they want to endure.
This is not even the worst part of this system. The current welfare system in the UK requires a postal address for benefit payments to be registered to, which creates what is referred to as The Postal Paradox. This is the situation whereby homeless people cannot access the services that they need (i.e., welfare payments) because they are homeless and do not have an address from which to apply.
So, the next time that Priti Patel starts arguing that foreign-born homeless people are a financial burden on society, she is citing a cost that, in the majority of cases, is not there. It is important to remember that non-EEA nationals don’t normally qualify to receive benefits, and that following Brexit, similar restrictions could be placed on EEA nationals in the future. Moreover, in drawing up plans to “reconnect” non-UK rough sleepers with their native country, the Home Secretary is actually choosing to spend anywhere between £80 and £1937 per individual for their relocation.
In short, the outcome that the Home Office is desperately seeking out is one that embodies morally reprehensible xenophobia. I would rather live in a country where the government tackled the challenges that faced all people in poverty, rather than removing foreign rough-sleepers so that the streets are more widely available for native rough-sleepers. In a nation that has the ability to lead in so many areas, I find it appalling that we can still find the time to see the difference between the “right” form of poverty and the “wrong” form of poverty. I feel confident in saying that when Gandhi referred to this situation, he made no differentiation in his analysis between a Latvian and a Briton. I can only hope that we, as a nation, view people’s value on the basis of their worth as a human being, and not on where they came from.
Written by Isaac Knowles
Isaac Knowles is a columnist at DecipherGrey.