John Veit Wilson writes: Osborne's fictitious living wage

In his budget yesterday the Chancellor George Osborne has hijacked ‘Living Wage’, a technical term used for campaigning for an adequate household income. The technical aspect is that it is used for the earnings needed to meet estimates of the cost of living at the minimally adequate level for a decent inclusive life as judged by the population as a whole [an empirical matter], and not as normatively determined by a politician on other criteria. The basis of the UK Living Wage [LW] is the reputable empirical research on public opinion on minimum income standards [MIS] carried out since 2006 at Loughborough University and funded by the JRF. The LW term was previously used in USA for normative household budgets generally based on empirical data for minimally adequate-for-inclusion levels of living. In its fundamental conception the Living Wage has always been a matter of what people calculate minimal adequacy requires, not on political assumptions about the costs of implementing the necessary wage rates revealed.

This hijacking or misappropriation by politicians of a technical term is enormously important for social scientists as a whole and not only for those who research and campaign on poverty questions. It is as if, in the field of illness and medicine, a politician were to say that the clinicians’ diagnoses of cancers lead to treatments that the politicians have decided are too expensive to fund, and so the politicians will decide in future what a cancer is. The public who are not in a position to judge will then be mystified about what ‘really’ is a cancer and what is merely a propaganda notion. This is akin to George Orwell’s Newspeak [I’m quoting his words from Wikipedia so that I can paste in what he wrote].  According to Orwell,

“the purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meaning and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meaning whatever.”

[Substitute Neolib for Ingsoc.]

Further, reports suggest that the aim is eventually to raise the level of Osborne’s minimum ‘living’ wage rates to something corresponding to 60% of median earnings. The fine detail is not as important as the Newspeak objective of reducing the concept of minimal income adequacy to a fixed percentage of some index of income distibution, when there is no a priori reason at all for supposing that this percentage or any other ever represents household income adequacy according to national population standards. The UK government’s ‘official’ poverty measure at 60% of equivalised household income is after all nothing more than an arbitrary expedient EU and OECD social indicator for cross-national reporting and comparison; it relates to no adequacy standards at all and should never be confused with adequacy. Empirical poverty research in the UK has shown that 60% has always been too low to reach the UK population’s own estimate of minimal adequacy. [Note I forbear to argue about the meaning of ‘poverty’ here, but it is a disgrace to poverty theory that so many people confuse arbitrary percentiles in quantitative distributive statistics with an empirically-based qualitative criterion.]

The UK government has indulged in Newspeak policies for ages, for instance with terms like ‘welfare’ and ‘security’, and is currently trying to do so with ‘human rights’. Educationalists may offer similar examples. So in raising the question about the abuse and appropriation of a term in the poverty policy field, I hope readers will grasp why I think this has far deeper significance to the UK’s social science community than merely treating it as an Osborne clever wheeze. Please pass the message on to other lists if you agree, for instance in politics, economics and political philosophy. I think misappropriation of technical terms ought also to be a matter for collective action by the learned and professional societies as well, and not only by the poverty charities and lobby groups.

John VW.


  1. A Petrie

    Couldn’t agree more. It was my first thought when I heard him hijack the term living wage. It takes all the potency out of the term as the general population are unaware of its history.

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