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Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Face of Modern Poverty in England

The New York Times ran a front page Saturday profile last week (oddly dated Tuesday January 14) on Jack Monroe, a 25-year old single mother in England who has apparently become what the headline calls "Britain's Austerity Celebrity".  Ms. Monroe, the reporter tells us, kept a "plucky online diary" about coping with the challenges of living in poverty with a toddler that became very popular and she has now been rewarded with a book contract and is now "courted by politicians, charities and even supermarket chains".   The article contains several vivid anecdotes of her hardships and sacrifices, including selling all her possessions and going to bed hungry often. And of course there are several "awww"-- inducing snippets from her young son.

But the article is beyond clueless when it tries to draw a larger lesson from Ms. Monroe's odyssey.  The article tells us, directly or indirectly, that Ms. Monroe (1) left school at 16, (2) is a single mother, (3) quit a full time job because she had to work at night but could not find child care at those hours and (4) has chosen to live alone and not with her middle-class parents.  With all these facts staring the reporter in his face, he writes "There is no simple tale here about a broken home, bad schools, drugs or racial prejudice, no familiarity in her path into poverty."

Seriously?  Drop-out, single mother, poor -- no familiarity to that story?  I mean, yes, there was no broken home, no bad schools, no racial prejudice, and as far as the press knows, no drugs.  But there are two of the biggest contributors to poverty and income inequality right there in his own narrative and the reporter appears oblivious to them.

The article tells us that the organized left in Britain uses Ms. Monroe as "proof that in post-financial crisis Britain neither the job market, which is sluggish, nor the benefit system, which is shrinking, can be relied upon to maintain a basic living standard."  The Times article doesn't go into detail about the job she quit, but I followed the links in the online version to an article about her in the British press, which says that she was earning 27,000 pounds (about $43,000) in the job she quit.  With all due respect, if a person who left school at 16 can get a job paying $43,000 -- keep in mind that she gets her health coverage through Britain's national health service on top of that  -- there is nothing wrong with Britain's job market.  In fact, it has the ninth-lowest unemployment rate of 31 European nations tracked by Eurostat, lower than Sweden's, Finland's, Turkey's, France's, Spain's, Belgium's, Italy's and Greece's.  Reuters reported last week that "British unemployment is falling faster than previously thought ... The poll of 50 economists, taken this week, suggests it will fall steadily in the coming quarters and reach 7 percent early next year."  And in terms of Ms. Monroe's demographic, the data are even rosier:  the female unemployment rate is already less than 7%, and the unemployment rate for persons 25 and older is an amazing 5.1%. ( UK site visited January 19).  And as far as the salary she gave up, it is almost exactly equal to the average annual full time salary in the UK.

I see Ms. Monroe as someone who consciously made bad decisions about several crucial aspects of her life -- to drop out of school early; to allow herself to become pregnant without a partner to share the burden of keeping a household, which left her with a no-win choice between job and child care; and to live on her own when she had a housing alternative with her parents.  Then, having painted herself into a desperate corner, she admirably escaped by creating an editorial product the market liked, which put her back on her feet.  If anything, the market rescues her, not fails her.   If she is the face of modern poverty in the UK, then the lessons to be learned are more about the benefit of making responsible life choices and creating value in the market than anything else.