Problems & Solutions – Adapting to a Post-Covid Environment
In the years immediately following WW2, both main parties were in general agreement about governance and governing, with the pragmatic considerations of office acting as a restraint on the more radical elements in each.
Re-building an economy shattered by war and having to adapt to peacetime production, upgrading infrastructure, building of new housing, schools and hospitals were the primary focus of successive governments during this time. Over the past forty years that post-war consensus has been turned on its head, with all the main political parties now vying to monopolise the modernising agenda in the belief that this is what the public really wants.
But given the impact of Covid and the already high levels of economic inequality in the country today, should the state now take a more hands-on role? Or should it simply create a new post-Covid strategic framework which allows for the basic building blocks of health, education, defence, welfare, energy and food security to be provided, but not necessarily by the state? The record over the last four decades of free market principles and privatisation on the one hand and public sector-led management on the other, has been patchy to say the least. Globalisation and neo-liberalism in our economic and political structures has created a generation often forced into low pay and insecure hours of work. Its impact has not gone unnoticed by Churches and anti-poverty groups, and as Chaplains, we too often come across this among those whom we serve.
According to the latest findings of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, poverty rates have risen for children and pensioners over the last five years and are highest in London, the North of England, Midlands and Wales. Some 14 million people are in poverty in the UK (more than one in five of the population) made up of 8 million working-age adults, 4 million children and 2 million pensioners. The UK’s largest foodbank provider, The Trussell Trust, in the year to March 2020 gave out 1.9m food parcels up from 1.6m the previous year.
Many of those employed in the hardest hit areas of the economy like retail and hospitality are most likely either on minimum or just above minimum wage levels (currently £8.72 per hour for over 25’s compared to UK living wage rate of £9.30 per hour). Debenham's in Birmingham’s Bull Ring will not be re-opening its doors and there are now wider fears that the whole company may be placed into liquidation putting some 14,000 jobs at risk including many in the Black Country. Likewise John Lewis has announced 1,300 job cuts and is closing stores including the iconic Grand Central store at Birmingham New Street Station. Providing for greater social mobility where equality of outcome is linked to equality of opportunity, is often cited as the best way to tackle poverty and allow people to flourish to their full potential. Yet the debacle over this year’s A level grades is in danger of undermining that very same principle. While we may advocate a system where everyone has a fair and equal chance for success, the outcomes often dictate otherwise for any number of reasons but more often than not, are influenced by the prevailing political and economic culture at the time.
Do we realistically expect to solve the problems of poverty and inequality simply by levelling everything down?
Technology and market forces can be harnessed to set out a new pathway to reduce economic inequality, but there needs to be a change in how humanity at large is prepared to change its fixation with the consumerist culture which is still alive and kicking online. One of the positives over recent weeks has been the response from many people from all walks of life, volunteering their services to assist those unable to look after themselves, whether through self-isolating or through financial pressures of lost incomes caused by the virus. We are also increasingly seeing signs of people not wanting to return to the old ways, but human tendency to selfishness will remain a problem unless those in authority – politicians, business leaders and clergy - provide the necessary moral and political leadership to make this a reality.
They say charity begins at home: but for those families and individuals facing the problems created by unemployment, benefit cuts, poor quality educational attainment, lack of vocational opportunities, high crime, housing shortages and sub-standard diet, it is these same charities – both religious and secular – who are plugging the gaps between society’s expectations and government policies. This despite Old Clem’s claim back in 1945.
Abraham Lincoln famously declared that democracy – and by implication good governance – was a government of the people, by the people and for the people.
As we move into a far from certain post-Covid future, many of us are wondering how and in what form, that final element will materialise.
 Joseph Rowntree Foundation uk_poverty_2019-20_findings