This is Brittle Britain, anxious and stressed
Poverty today is no longer about material needs. Loneliness and lack of support have become much more important
By Geoff Mulgan
A decade or so ago few imagined that poverty would become a fiercely fought political battleground. Yet party leaders today
are competing hard to prove that they alone know how to reduce poverty. But beyond the rhetoric, what should they do? How
should they prioritise a shrinking pot of public spending? And how should they be judged?
Yesterday the Young Foundation published a large survey that aims to describe the state of the nation. Backed by a dozen
of the UK’s leading foundations, and with many leading academics and statisticians as advisers, the survey looks at what
needs Britain has, which are getting better and which are getting worse.
The survey challenges many of the conventional wisdoms. The troubling message for the Government is that after 12 years
in power, inequalities are widening, a huge number of teenagers remain out of education or training and 2.5 million people
are still on incapacity benefit1. For the Conservatives, however, the message of “broken Britain” is equally at odds with
the facts. There is much less material poverty than a decade ago, much less crime, significantly better health and most
of the measures of community — such as how much neighbours trust each other — have improved, albeit not much. Far from
being a disaster area, the family remains strong, and much the most important place where most people’s needs are met.
For both main parties there are also striking messages that suggest their familiar battlegrounds are now out of date.
Most of the arguments about poverty in the past have focused on material needs. Today there is still some material
poverty, but psychological needs are much more important and much more challenging. Around one in five people in the
UK experience mental health problems at some point in their lives. The number of prescriptions for antidepressant
drugs2 increased from 9 million in 1991 to 34 million in 2007.
Just as serious are what could be called psychosocial needs, our need for other people to care for us. A more
individualistic society is also one with much more loneliness. Half a million pensioners spend Christmas Day alone.
Our research shows that a million people have literally no one to turn to and no one who appreciates them. Many older
people in cities like London are afraid to go out, and feel acutely isolated.
All of this poses quite a challenge for public policy. Being without a roof over your head brings you new rights.
Having no one to talk to doesn’t. But there is little sign yet that the parties know quite how to deal with these
issues. Nor would they feel comfortable acknowledging another striking finding, which is that many, from teenagers
to refugees, value having a mobile phone more than they value having enough to eat.
One particularly glaring3 area of failure jumps out from the research. Britain does particularly badly in helping
young people to make the transition from being a child to being an adult. Middle-class teenagers can generally rely
on parents and family friends. But many other teenagers are bereft of the help they need, not least the 80,000 or so
children in local authority care. If they then get into trouble with the law, a conviction can often be a one-way
ticket to another crime and another conviction.
There’s also a bigger message. Everyone faces setbacks in their lives — but what makes the difference is whether we can
cope, and whether we have the resilience4 to bounce back. It helps to have friends and family. It helps to have some
assets5. But resilience is also an attitude of mind, and one of the fascinating findings of recent years is that
resilience can be learnt.
As well as documenting needs today, we also looked at which needs could become more acute in future. Anxiety and
depression are on course to double in the space of a generation. So is obesity6.
These, and many of the other needs we identify, aren’t so easy for the public sector to meet. Governments are quite
good at distributing money or providing hospitals. But they’re not so good at providing love and care. This is territory
where civil society7 tends to have the edge8: it is better at seeing people in the round, as
individuals rather than as
collections of problems, and, as public spending retreats, civil society is bound to have to play a bigger role. It
would be fatuous9, though, to pretend that charity can substitute for the State. The arithmetic says it all: at the
moment charities spend about £1 for every £20 that government spends.
Our survey shows that Britain is a rich country but with many poor people; a generally happy country but with many
unhappy people. It’s not broken. But it is brittle10, anxious and stressed. To the public it is obvious that psychological
needs are as important as material ones, that love, care, peace of mind are as vital to a good life as having enough
heating or enough clothes to wear. Yet there is an odd gulf between this common knowledge and public policy. Whoever
can bridge that gap may win the battle to convince the public that they understand poverty and what to do about it.
Source: TimesOnline, Dec.8, 2009
Survey on YoungFoundation
1. incapacity benefit - Erwerbsunfähigkeitshilfe
2. antidepressant drugs - Antidepressiva
3. glaring - eklatant, offenkundig
4. resilience - Widerstandsfähigkeit
5. assets - Vermögen, Guthaben
6. obesity - Fettleibigkeit
7. civil society - bürgerliche Gesellschaft, Zivilgesellschaft
8. to have the edge - überlegen sein
9. fatuous - illusorisch
10. brittle - leicht zerbrechlich
1. What does the survey mentioned in this article ascertain in respect of the issue of 'poverty' and the government's
handling of it.
2. In what areas is the state bound to fail and who can do more for the peole's needs?
3. Why do you think have 'psychological needs' become a problem in the past decades?
4. What text type is this? Substantiate your opinion.
5. Do you think the same problems described in the text apply to the German society as well?