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January 6, 2010

A call for modest living

In the week that Scotland’s top civil servant warned of ‘dramatic spending cuts’ and the inevitability of ‘painful belt tightening’, long time poverty campaigner Bob Holman argues that a shift towards more modest lifestyles would benefit all of our communities

Bob Holman

The recession has hit some sections of society harder than others.

While the affluent have generally retained their salaries and homes, those on lower incomes have been more vulnerable to losing both jobs and houses. This growing gulf between the affluent and the poor is harming our society – and it’s not only the poor who are suffering.

A Joseph Rowntree Foundation report published last June demonstrated widespread unease about the effects of greed, consumerism and individualism on our lives. Based on extensive research among 3,500 individuals, it showed most people believed that the improvements that have occurred during their lifetimes were increasingly outweighed by personal greed, lack of community involvement and excessive materialism so severe as to be termed social evils. It also revealed deep feelings of frustration and individual powerlessness to alter the direction of the trends currently shaping society.

Public reaction to the MPs’ expenses scandal was similar. Many constituents expressed anger, disgust, and also a fear that MPs’ values were damaging our country. They too felt powerless in the sense that they doubted if any of the major political parties would take effective action against senior MPs who had played the system for their own financial ends.

Another illuminating publication of 2009 was The Spirit Level. Subtitled Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better, the book, by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, showed that inequality is bad for everyone – the well-off as well as the poor. Almost every social and environmental problem – from obesity and mental ill-health to violence and long working hours – is more prevalent within countries such as the UK and US, which have a large wealth gap, than in nations like Sweden and Norway, where the gap is much narrower. Politicians do nothing to tackle inequality. Gordon Brown’s government has given titles to many wealthy financiers for services to banking, yet not one honour has been presented for services to equality.

The result of all this is to make Britain an unhappy and unjust country about which many feel they can take no action. My response, however, is that we are not powerless and that, as individuals, we can still make choices which rebuff these trends. We can be socially pro-active by the nature of our individual lifestyles, as was admirably demonstrated by two very different individuals, both of whom died last year.

The first was the sociologist Peter Townsend, whose essay, You Cannot Live Like A Lord And Preach As A Socialist, I discovered as a young student in 1958, and who would later become my teacher and friend. Townsend was brought up the hard way by a lone mother who tried, unsuccessfully, to make a career on the stage. A lecturer at the London School of Economics, he was horrified at the extent of poverty and inequality. He turned to socialism but soon realised that political words had to be matched by living actions.

Once made a professor, he declared that professors were over-paid. He was one of the founders of the Child Poverty Action Group and gave much of his salary to support it. His whole life was devoted to organising and financing agencies which spoke for the most deprived. Peter never ingratiated himself with the political and social elites who could have promoted his career. He always maintained links and friendships with those who faced social and physical disadvantages. In addition, he refused the chance of a peerage, for he considered it to be inconsistent with social equality.

The second was John Kerr, who was a Glasgow street fighter until a local policeman drew him into a boxing club which made him a champion and kept him out of trouble. Married with a family, he got into debt with the “provys” (doorstep lenders). He then met a Christian community activist who ran a credit union which charged low interest rates on loans. John joined, got out of debt and saved. Moving to Cranhill, he founded a credit union which still thrives and which has ploughed over £15 million back into the community. John’s gift was for recruiting residents to run local activities. He could do so because he stayed in Cranhill and refused to move out to a well-paid job in a posh area. His life influenced hundreds of people.

As for me, in the 1970s, I left a professorship at Bath University to run a community project on a council estate. I did so because, as a Christian, I felt the example of Christ was to be close to those in poverty. As a social worker, I wanted to be in practice. After 10 years, the project was completely in local hands. With my Scottish wife, Annette, I moved to a flat in Glasgow’s Easterhouse.

I do not know what effect I have had on the community. There were occasions when I was terrified by threats of violence from drug users. I could have wept at the extreme poverty, the debts to loan sharks, and the impossibility of finding jobs. Yet I never wanted to leave and regard the Easterhouse years as the best of my life. I benefited enormously from the fellowship with local people as we strove to improve the neighbourhood. I found more loyal friendships, more altruism and more love among them than I ever did with wealthy establishment figures in my academic years. I never earned more than the average salary but Annette and I, and our children, have been content. Life is more than a large income.
It is within the power of many to change their lifestyles. But I am not calling for a mass movement to deprived areas. My wife and I, on retirement, moved to a small house on the other side of Glasgow to mind our grandsons. But we still try to live according to certain values and guidelines. I am calling for modest living.

Few people need more more than £40,000 a year for a comfortable life. My suggestion is not that high earners give up their important jobs. Rather it is that they distribute any surplus over £40,000 to those in need or to agencies serving the needy. We can reduce spending on cars, plasma TVs, the latest audio systems, expensive mobiles, electronic gadgets, holidays abroad, pricey restaurants, too many clothes and so on. This does not entail living like a monk or a nun. Rather it means not spending excessively, giving less attention to the quantity of our material possessions and more to the quality of our personal relationships.

We can also spend our money on consumer and financial institutions which do not just stimulate greed, consumerism and materialism. For instance, the Co-op Bank centres on ethical policies with customers voting on the ethical issues they want promoted. The Co-op Bank (unlike the high street banks) did not make the kind of high-risk loans which stimulated the recession. It does not pay to bankers the kind of high bonuses which reinforce inequality. It is gaining customers because it can be trusted. Recently, Which? awarded its prestigious award for Best Financial Services Provider to the Co-op Bank.
We can buy our goods from Co-op shops, not the large supermarkets which channel huge profits into the hands of directors and shareholders. I shop every day with the Co-op, where I know the staff. I get my insurance and prescriptions from them and I will be buried by them – with my wife getting the divi. For the Co-op does not have shareholders to pay and instead money goes back as dividends to thousands of shoppers.

Mutual building societies, not-for-profit agencies and credit unions exist for the good of users, not just directors. Small, independent shops are also an integral part of communities.

Particularly important is how and where we reside. Instead of seeking the largest possible home in a fashionable area, why not a smaller, cheaper one in a less upmarket location? Yes, a modest lifestyle may mean financial sacrifices. A smaller house in such an area won’t increase in value as quickly as one elsewhere. But modest living is a statement against financial greed and materialism, because it doesn’t reinforce these evils. It challenges the dominance of inequality, since it means accepting less so that others can have more. Those prepared to live in cheaper areas will counter the domiciliary fragmentation of our society, helping to make Britain a less divisive, more united country.

Finally, modest-living people who opt for cheaper communities will find opportunities for a practical contribution to improve the locality. This is not meant to imply going in as a missionary with all the answers. More humility is required. A young couple, both with professional qualifications, chose to reside in an unfashionable neighbourhood. Years later, they do not regard themselves as leaders. Their children go to the local school. They are liked and respected as good neighbours. With others, they volunteer to run a summer camp.
Living there makes a difference to community life.

As an egalitarian, I believe that more equal societies are more just, more fair, more content. But there are those who don’t want greater equality. How can those on high and comfortable incomes be persuaded to take less, to move into the kind of neighbourhoods which they consider socially inferior, to place importance on improving life for all children, not just their own? There are strong moral arguments to be considered. First, as Wilkinson and Pickett make clear, more equal societies are more contented and suffer fewer social problems than unequal ones. In short, by living more modestly we can improve life for all.
Second, the wellbeing of people in poorer countries depends on our actions. Indeed the very future of the planet may do so. The world is running short of vital resources such as food, water, fuel, power and raw materials. Already millions face dire poverty. One outcome could be war over resources. It makes moral as well as economic sense for the affluent to adopt lifestyles that both favour greater equality and also consume less. We may have to share in order to survive.

The goal of achieving a better and fairer society demands a moral response, the response of modest living. We do have the power to live in this way. If enough people do so, it becomes collective action – and that can change society.

Bob Holman is a retired professor of social policy and a retired community worker. His new book on Keir Hardie will be published in March