“I’ve heard if you earn minimum wage in England you’re in the top 10% earners in the world. #stay #humble” The central mystery surrounding activity () is how he came to be a cricketer. You would think someone with poor numeracy would be better suited to a sport like football.
It is relatively easy to be in the richest 10% on the minimum wage, if you’re happy to live in a very expensive place. The minimum wage in Gabon is £3,672, or less than a third of our £13,500. On the other hand, a suburban one-bedroom flat there is £63 a month, or less than an eighth the cost of the average suburban one-bedder in the UK (£541). A couple more data points (average public transport, 17p to £2.20) and the picture is pretty plain; someone on the minimum wage in the UK may technically be richer, but could buy a lot less and will ergo struggle a lot more. Money doesn’t mean anything out of context: its value is determined by what you can buy with it. Most people figure this out by the age of about seven.
These misunderstandings persist through what is only secondarily a failure of maths, and prior to that, a failure of the imagination.
There is a widespread misapprehension that unemployed people constitute the greatest cost of the benefit bill. In fact, they make up only 15% of the housing benefit bill, and an astonishingly low . It’s an easy mistake to make, given the state of political rhetoric – would likely lead to a “stampede” to the jobcentre. Conservatives frequently talk about “freeing people from benefit dependency” by removing those benefits upon which they depend. So it’s a fair assumption by the casual onlooker that receiving benefits and having a job are two separate, mutually exclusive states; in fact, they usually coexist. Wages often aren’t enough to live on. All politicians, apart from the terminally stupid ones, know as much. To pretend anything else is a fundamental untruth.
But it takes an interest in data before you’d instantly be able to pinpoint the mendacity of that. The benefit cap itself, or the falsities that herald its arrival, should be easier to reject. I often get into arguments (on Twitter) about the cap, whether it’s £26,000 or £23,000, with people who have swallowed the line that, because they’re earning less than that, it must be a really handsome amount to live on. “It’s hardly squalor, is it? They’re making more than me.” Sure. But if they are a lone parent with two or more children (these are the families predominantly hit by the cap), then housing costs alone would eat up a minimum wage salary. Put simply, if you cut benefits at random, regardless of family size and housing costs, until they were lower than the lowest salary, people would become homeless and starve. To see that, you would need to give the matter five minutes’ solid thought.
This political culture of vindictive rhetoric, which relies on people not concentrating, is a pretty sad state of affairs, and I’d see as its victim rather than its perpetrator. Still, it wouldn’t kill him to concentrate.
I suppose what I find astonishing is the centuries-old tenacity of this myth, that there are poor people out there, taking the piss, enjoying their leisure, scoffing at the world of work, laughing at the honest taxpayers who keep the wolf from their door. These mass outbreaks of fecklessness only ever come out during a recession, and you never meet these losers in real life. But here they come, an army of freeloading ghouls, conjured in readiness for a war. They will evaporate at the lightest brush with human empathy.
- This article was amended on 28 January 2015 to correct the comparison in the second paragraph of minimum wages in the UK and Gabon