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Monday, 15 August 2011

Genteel Poverty and Hidden Affluence: probing beneath the surface

Thinking some more about Danny Dorling's book, discussed in my previous Post, I remembered a concern I have about polite social science and government surveys.

It is too readily assumed that people tell the truth. Often, they don't but you have to be intrusive to find that out. Social scientists are supposed to seek the truth not prove that they are polite or well-meaning.

There was once a stock literary character, the elderly spinster or widow living in "genteel poverty". The money had run out but she tried to keep up appearances, deceiving the world into thinking that there was more in her purse than there really was. Had a social scientist passed through and asked her how she was doing, "Very Well, Thank You" she would have replied.

The opposites of the genteel spinster are all those people who plead poverty when they aren't poor. Often, they have a plausible case because their "official" incomes are poverty incomes. But sometimes those incomes have hidden supplements.

The same is true for those who are willing to admit to affluence but are in reality quite wealthy.

Crime, work in the black economy, windfalls, extended family support and inheritances all boost people's standards of living. They may provide unreliable and intermittent boosts to income, but that is not a reason to ignore them. Some people get through their whole life on a series of windfalls.

If you are going to make a serious study of inner city deprivation or rural poverty, you need to factor in things like the proceeds of crime and how they get distributed. You need to probe the black economy and add in its effect on income levels.

You also need to look at family networks of support and not just at individual income profiles. When my mother left my father, our new stock of furniture comprised cast-offs from my mother's brothers and sisters. London's recent looters did not just loot for themselves; some of those plasma TVs were for the family.

Then there are windfalls from Premium Bonds and the Lottery. When Premium Bonds were introduced in 1956, my paternal grandmother presented me with one. Just one. I still have it somewhere. But if you manage to buy a few thousand Premium Bonds, then you will have tax-free windfalls from time to time which don't show up as "Interest on Savings". It's what my father relied on. He also had a very good act to demonstrate poverty. He lived in a caravan. Many were fooled.

Lottery wins are also tax free. I realise that the Lottery is basically a tax on the poor, but even a modest lottery win can temporarily boost the income of an extended family. Most inheritances are also tax free and even poor people get them sometimes. They can provide an enormous boost to a family's fortunes.

Only if you probe behind the front most of us present to the world can you explain things like the strange ability of so many families to come up with staggering sums of money for weddings. Now there's a topic for Danny Dorling. I bet there's a North - South and rural - urban divide on wedding costs!


Added 24 July 2018: This Blog post provides material for the chapter "Judging by Appearances" in my book, The Best I Can Do (degree zero 2016), freely available from Amazon, Waterstones and other booksellers.

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