Walking along Barrack Street in Bridport I am always struck by the sight of Port Bredy. Now flats it was once a hospital and before that the local Work House. The Poor Law Guardians used to meet monthly at the Greyhound on East Street to discuss the needs of the inmates and decide who of the local poor were worthy of their support. In the language of the time, there were the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. Most of the inmates were elderly and women.
Work houses are things of the past. Yet the attitudes they embodied toward the poor are still with us. Today our politicians speak of ‘strivers’ and ‘shirkers’. Different words but the same implicit meaning. Some are poor simply through their own indolence. You would be surprised how often I hear such Victorian values still being expressed by people one would hope had more discernment and intelligence than to swallow spite filled prejudice peddled in some sections of the national press.
It has been said that ‘the poor are always with us’. That’s true in part in that poverty is relative to the general wealth of society. Yet we have growing numbers of people who are ‘strivers’, families in employment but who are struggling. The decline in real wages, increased food and energy costs, underemployment and a lack of affordable housing are all corrosive.
There is currently a debate that employers should pay a living rather than the minimum wage. The minimum wage will rise by 19p to £6.50 an hour in October. The living wage is £7.65. Half a million workers are paid the minimum rather than the living wage. These people live constantly on the threshold of poverty and it only takes an unexpected bill to usher them into the hands of the payday lenders who charge extortionate rates of interest.
West Dorset and Bridport has an air of prosperity. Yet many of our town’s strivers are finding life very tough indeed. A little test for you. What is the difference between the minimum and living wage? The answer is a food bank.