A CENTURY ago, Seebohm Rowntree shocked the nation by revealing the sheer number of people who lived in grinding poverty.
A hundred years on, many things have improved. But there are still far too many people caught in the poverty trap.
We think of York as a wealthy city. And yet it is estimated that there are 13,795 people living in poverty within the city boundaries – many of them children. One statistic is truly shocking: men born into the most deprived parts of York can expect to live ten years less than men born in wealthier suburbs.
At some point, we have to ask: is this the kind of society, and city, in which we want to live?
There will always be those who think “I’m all right Jack”. But poverty affects everyone. Since the recession, we have all seen the cost of living – in the form of rent, food, fuel and childcare – rise inexorably. It has been estimated that a family in York with an income of £22,000 has to spend 34 per cent of their income on rent. That is not sustainable.
It isn’t simply those now on low incomes who are vulnerable. There’s an old US saying that you’re never more than two pay cheques from the street. It would only need an unforeseen change in circumstances – a death; illness; the loss of a job; divorce – for many apparently comfortable, stable families in York to find themselves struggling.
Borrowing cash has never been easier. But the ruinous rates of interest charged by payday loan companies can make it more difficult to escape the poverty trap.
So what can we do?
Food banks, credit unions and other community initiatives can help. But there must, at some point, also be a shift towards greater government intervention, at local and national level.
The key things that families need to help them out of poverty are help to get jobs; access to benefits; and support for costs such as rent, fuel and childcare.
Today, in this newspaper, we report on a landmark strategy to tackle poverty drawn up by organisations across the city – including The Press, The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Citizens Advice Bureau, City of York Council and many others.
The strategy sets a number of targets – including cutting unemployment by 40 per cent in three years, securing 1,000 new private-sector jobs, and encouraging more businesses to pay their employees a ‘living wage’.
It is a good example of local government, the private sector, and charitable and other organisations working together to try to reduce poverty in 21st century York: surely the kind of joint approach that is needed.
We can’t help thinking Seebohm Rowntree would have approved.