Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party, has told the Economist that living on benefits in the UK is worse than being poor in India, because in India everyone else is poor too. Ms Bennett has claimed that her words were taken out of context, but her explanation supports the thrust of the Economist’s article.
Speaking to the magazine’s columnist Bagehot, Ms Bennett is reported as saying “people cannot live on the benefits we have now.” Later, she goes on to say “The world is sodden with stuff, it cannot have more stuff.” Bagehot notes “Yet they [the Green Party] do not appear to have considered what that would mean for billions of the world’s poorest people, almost none of whom live in Britain. When Bagehot suggested to her that there was a problem with this, Ms Bennett said he was worrying too much: to be poor in India wasn’t so bad as to be on benefits in Britain, she suggested, “because at least everyone else there is poor too”.”
Her comments were seized on by Ukip leader Nigel Farage, who tweeted “What utter drivel, highlighting a major lack of critical thinking and compassion”.
But speaking to the Independent, Ms Bennett complained that the article did not fairly represent her views. “The journalist put the claim to me that there is ‘no such thing as real poverty in Britain’ and I spoke about comparative poverty,” she said, adding that Bagehot had brought up India. “It doesn’t make sense to look at benefits and compare the figure to income abroad…the reality of comparative poverty is striking people on benefits and low wages.”
Last year, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation undertook a study into poverty in the UK, and found that in 2012/13, for the first time, more than half of those defined as living in poverty lived in a household in which at least one person works. This suggests that even comparatively speaking, British people on benefits are no worse off than their working compatriots, and may even be better off.
But even the Foundation admits that “When we talk about poverty in the UK today we rarely mean malnutrition or the levels of squalor of previous centuries or even the hardships of the 1930s before the advent of the welfare state. It is a relative concept. ‘Poor’ people are those who are considerably worse off than the majority of the population –a level of deprivation heavily out of line with the general living standards enjoyed by the majority of the population in one of the most affluent countries
in the world.”