I note with interest that the figures for "people living in poverty" in several western European countries is up again, and all the usual campaigners are jumping up and down about the need to increase "benefits." But in the same week that these figures have emerged, a less well publicised bit of information came out. The UK (and to a slightly lesser extent, Germany) have very generous benefits for child care, tax breaks for those on low incomes with children, generous allowances and policies for housing, heating and, of course, "income."
Stepping aside from these for the moment, there is a third item to ponder in this matrix, immigration. We are all familiar with the usual image of immigrants, in the UK, as being from the East, probably Muslim and from failing and poverty stricken backgrounds. In Germany as well, the usual image is of migrants from the Middle East, seeking work and an escape from the constant tensions there. But, as the UK's most recent census has flagged up, this may not be true. In fact, in the UK, people from India, not Pakistan/Bangladesh are the largest immigrant group and the Pakistani element is actually third or fourth on the tally. It may surprise some to know that Polish people now occupy the second spot on the "immigration" statistics and one of the reasons for this will almost certainly surprise many, should they actually read it up.
Put simply, the UK and Germany, Holland, Belgium and several other Northern and Western European nations offer far more generous support for low paid workers than their homeland! One Polish mother, interviewed by Yahoo News, was quite open about it. Where Poland has a set sum for "Child Support," the UK has a basic amount per child, plus certain tax allowances which effectively increase the value of this money. Then the Housing Benefit, Income Support and the tax allowance she receives because she is on "low pay" all add up to a far more generous package than she enjoyed at "home." A similar story has emerged in Holland and the Belgians have identified this problem as well. Is this a case of the system being "exploited?"
I would say no. Why? Let me be frank. Who among us does not want a better standard of living for ourselves or our children? Who among us would not, if we had to live on the basic income level in our own country and struggle, move to another country where the allowances and support is more generous if we had the option? These folk are not "cheating" anyone, they are using Marx's direction to take their labour to where they can obtain a fairer and more equitable level of reward. Given that to do it they must adopt a new language, learn to live in a new and though related culture, still one with many more differences in practice than they are used to, these folk are simply doing what they need to do in order to improve their lot.
The problem is, of course, that they actually slew the statistics the "bleeding heart" pundits base their argument upon. The German statistics show that "people in poverty" has increased from 14% in 2007 to 16% in 2011 and, of course, there are calls for an increase in "benefit" to "lift people out of poverty." I note that a similar increase has occured in the UK and the same call is being made there. But now comes the crunch, the "people in poverty" figures are taken from the numbers of people living on certain "benefits," and those now include the steady trickle of Eastern Europeans seeking a new life and a better deal for their children.
As the Polish lady cheerfully identified to the interviewer, she is doing a job, low paid, that could be done by a native Brit, and receiving help for her family. She got the job because no one in Britain was prepared to do it. Why? It all comes back to that generous "benefit" package. Why work when, if you did, you'd lose the benefits you currently enjoy, have to pay the full rates of income tax, national insurance and so on - only to find that your earnings now come out below what you get in "benefits?" This is the vicious circle that over generous "benefits" create by becoming a disincentive to work.
I suspect that the answer to lifting people out of poverty is to find a way to incentivise them to find work and develop their productivity. That is not going to be easy, largely because, at least since the end of the Great War, there has been a strong under current against any position that involved either "service" or some sort of "tied living" arrangement, both of which could provide a lot of jobs if properly regulated. The "benefits" themselves have become so embedded in the psyche of many as a "right not to work" paid for by "government" and therefore "free," is another part of the problem. We used to laugh at the antics of Andy Capp and his long suffering wife Flo, and though he was a stereotype, he did typify a certain mindset. It will not be easy to change that either!
As the Bible says, there will always be those who are "poor," sometimes through choice and sometimes by their own inability to manage themselves or their incomes properly. We must, obviously, provide a safety net for those who are caught in this trap, but that net should never be one from which they are not encouraged or enabled to escape. And, as I was remonded recently by a friend, "poverty" is also a state of mind, often completely unrelated to material wealth.