In the late nineteenth century in Europe, in the 1920’s in America and Europe, and throughout the post-war period in America, but especially in the European Union, we have seen periods of prolonged agricultural protectionism. This is in many forms of tariffs, trade restrictions, quotas, subsidies and support systems that has resulted in a food supply jigsaw puzzle that has a massive disjoint between price and costs. This in almost every case has resulted in many high cost farming practises that are made artificially affordable by a combination of higher prices and/or farm subsidies. It is also a fact that more expensive farm practises that use more resources are usually less green. The consequences of these policies result repeatedly in inadequate investment in rural poor and rural services and instead in the owners of assets, whether the land owner or the owner of the Company’s providing fuel, chemicals and machinery. The money is placed on farm land, food packing and processing, but not on people. This may be an old argument, but if you are a farmer in Lincolnshire you cannot deny you have been on a treadmill chasing increasing production, whilst not benefitting from the increased profits as costs of farming and rents have increased. If you work in South Lincolnshire in the food industry you will have seen massive increases in housing costs especially in the form of rents and house prices without a proportionate increase in either income or services provided. If you are a farmer that owns land you may have been in the bizarre situation of increasing wealth in terms of land value, but increasingly poor in terms of income to live on. The classic asset rich cash poor. This fundamental cause of increased poverty is subject to argument and debate.
There is also one other significant factor that has added to poverty in rural food producing areas such as South Lincolnshire and that is the transfer of ownership of the food packing and processing industry into large corporate organisations with no ties within the community or desire to contribute and invest effectively in the local community. This has resulted in a massive reduction of investment in local communities, with the PR value of any action being a greater concern than its benefit to the community. In the past family-owned firms invested time and money into the community which aided the supply of good local employees and benefitted the community as a whole. There are still examples of this today, but sadly most are legacy of the actions of previous benefactors to the area.
There are also other causes of poverty that apply to all geographic areas that are simpler to identify and less disputable. The primary driver of poverty is housing costs. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation identifies the following as causes of poverty: low pay, working part-time, belonging to a minority ethnic group, being a lone parent, being a private renter, living in an area of high deprivation. I would add to this being a carer of an ill or disabled person and living in a remote area (usually rural, but city’s and suburbs can have remote areas).
Rural remoteness is a particular area of poverty as it sees reduced access to social, economic and welfare sources as well as reduced access to transport and technology. Rural remoteness makes everything more expensive whether it is basic food shopping, taking children to school, going to the doctors, going to work – all these things become more expensive due to rural remoteness. It also turns the car ( take note green activists) , which for a town dweller can be a luxury item they can manage without, into a necessity. Indeed, the rural household may need two or more vehicles just to enable more than one person to work and the household needs to be fulfilled. Just travelling to the nearest petrol station may be a forty mile round trip. Intermittent electric, internet and phone services also need to be allowed for. I have sat down in many a rural kitchen trying to help people balance their books only to realise it is impossible. When two cars are a necessity the need to pay for repairs regardless of affordability ends up with credit cards being used, which in turn attract high interest rates and repayment becomes impossible. You can end up not being able to afford to go to work due to travel cost, child care cost. Part-time rural employment is even worse. My wife’s friend is in a one car household in a rural location with a young child in the house. If she does a four hour shift it is barely worth her while as with a young child four trips are required to get her too and from work. For a single parent the problem can be even worse as even an eight hour shift can be cash negative.
Absolutely any household can slide into poverty as events that cause poverty can cascade. Such events can include:
- loss of job
- disaster such as fire or flood
- sudden death or disability
- physical ill health
- mental breakdown
- problem debt
- parental conflict
- drugs and alcohol.
I believe no-one is immune from any of these happening to them and one event can cause another, and thus the dominoes fall. This can happen in any walk of life, any income type, or strata of society.
Of particular vulnerability, in my opinion, is the family farmer in the UK, especially those with smaller holdings. Many farms are being run on uneconomic principles or as lifestyles rather than profit making businesses. Even those that are being run on economic principles are being stressed by changing practises that are being enforced on them faster than they can adapt. There is also the pressure to preserve their farms “at any cost” which is going to spell disaster as debts begin to meet or exceed the value of assets held. The tenant farmer is in a particular trap if his home is part of the tenancy. I once met a farmer who had three different family homes that relied upon his single agricultural tenancy. It is not unusual for a farmer’s partner (usually a woman and often involved in teaching or a caring profession) to use their income to prop up the farmers activity. Thus a farmer, whether a tenant or landowner can sleepwalk into poverty. The farmer’s poverty is largely hidden by two things that when they collapse add considerably to the pain of poverty: an artificially high life style funded by borrowing; the farmer’s typical ability to cope. Once the level is reached where either or both of these can be maintained the consequences can be crushing leading to physical nd emotional collapse or even suicide.
The other particular area of vulnerability are those working in farming and food packing and processing. This is a fickle industry that has raced to the bottom in how it treats workers seeking the lowest paid, often from abroad, regardless of exploitation. Brexit and the pandemic revealed these cracks as the supply of cheap labour dried up, in the case of Brexit with warning, but in the case of Covid, almost overnight. This resulted in an uplift of fortune for those remaining. The gang system of farm labour has been used for hundreds of years and it has largely been abused throughout that time enabling slavery, child labour, illegal migration, people trafficking, exploitation and exclusion of a more protected work force. This suites the seasonality of business, but let us not hide that it creates poverty. Nowadays the supply chain has to sign up to certification of good employment principles and anti-slavery, but in reality it is a box ticking exercise and most are only concerned that all appears in order on the face of it. A combination of Brexit and Covid has had a positive effect in my area by substantially reducing the blight of multiple occupancy over-crowded housing that was rented and sub-let. This has been matched by a reduction in anti-social behaviour; a reduction in open drug taking and dealing; and substantially fewer cars (In 2019 I checked the cars down my street 70% were not taxed, in April 2022 I have done the same and the only one not taxed is kept off the road.)
The poverty of many of these people was hidden because the employer controlled their access to housing, transport and employment. Others avoided poverty through their ability to cope and over-crowded shared housing was one of those coping methods, albeit to the detriment of the neighbourhood. Many would not ask for help – it needs to be remembered that a persons experience in another country may taint their view on how authorities may help them in the UK. This can make them vulnerable to abuse and criminality. Poverty and its consequences can be silenced as well as hidden.
We need to consider, whatever the cause of poverty or its location, those experiencing it often hide it. Like the poor church mouse poverty is quiet.