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03/12/2019 19:29:46  

Mr Johnson once thought ‘destitution on a Victorian scale’ might be a good thing. With Tory policies he may yet deliver such a dystopia

Did Boris Johnson watch Channel 4’s documentary Growing Up Poor? He should have. The film is a seminal moment in television which has made people talk about the crisis of destitution that is hiding in plain sight in the UK, and how dreadful it is. In the programme, childhood dreams of being an actor or a solicitor jarred with tales of chronic poverty. There were bleak scenes of Dickensian hardship, as families living in squalor or with hungry children at a food bank explained how these situations had been precipitated by everyday catastrophes of bereavement, domestic violence and mental breakdown. The damaging trade-offs being made – of whether to eat or heat – are a shameful indictment of a country as wealthy as ours.

The prime minister does not care to be appraised of such things. Nor is he willing to accept the fact that since 2010-11, on the three main measures, UK child poverty has risen. Nor that the spread of penury has been driven by Conservative cuts and freezes to tax credits and benefits. The government’s own Social Metrics Commission found that more than 4 million people in the UK are trapped in deep poverty, effectively destitute. This is a new phenomenon. Before 2012 the academic literature on the subject found little mention of destitution apart from among asylum seekers. Once the poor might have expected the welfare safety net to help them avoid deprivation. They now have no such guarantee. Austerity, low incomes and precarious jobs have made the poor newly vulnerable to unexpected financial shocks and the slide into desperate hardship.

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