Saturday, September 01, 2007

Book Notes: Hard Work by Polly Toynbee

This is a fascinating and deeply disturbing book. The premise is that journalist and author, Polly Toynbee assumes a false identity and tries to live on the minimum wage in London. She seeks benefits, looks for work, and tries to see if she can pull together a meagre, but sustainable life for her and her son.

The end result is shocking but unsurprising. The minimum wage does not provide a sufficient safeguard against poverty and exploitation, the benefits system is chaotic, incomprehensible and illogical, low-wage employers use the benefits system to fund their exploitation, and despite a decade of promises to the contrary the system still shuts people out of work and fosters dependence. That is of course even when the minimum wage is actually paid. Of course on paper, the minimum wage is always paid, but Toynbee also exposes a cluster of clever tactics which unscrupulous employers use to escape from its demands. The very worst conditions that she comes across are in the former 'public-sector', which is now predominantly run as the great-sub-sub-contract sector.

The book is of course not without its critics. Many say that Toynbee's agenda with which she approached the exercise predetermined the result. Others have castigated the very idea that such an exercise in 'crossing the tracks' can ever be realistic, and that it is inevitably patronising. Several reviews have pointed out that the greatest tragedy of this book is that the plight of the working-poor is brought to our attention by an upper-middle class journalist who retreats to her Hampstead life at weekends; and not by a representative of their own. Poverty is powerlessness and voicelessness.

This however is a more telling criticism of our society than of this book. It's hardly fair to criticise Toynbee for accepting the minimum wage challenge posed to various well-known people by Church Action on Poverty -or for bringing her experiences to our attention. It's to her credit that she has done so and highlighted the very issues under consideration.

It is reported that on one occasion Malcolm X, the militant black separatist leader, was accosted by a white man at some traffic lights who said, "Malcolm - if I was black, I'd support you - so what should I do?". "Go back and explain it to your community" was allegedly his response. It is an interesting dialogue because it apparently helped Malcolm to overcome some of his racist ideas, and moderated his understanding that white people could only over oppose progress for African Americans. Toynbee could perhaps not be convincingly 'poor' anymore than the man at the traffic lights could be black, yet she has successfully come back and explained it to her community. It makes it an important book to read.

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