What Are Today’s Five Great Evils?

The UK social security system sought to undermine the five great evils described as “want, squalor, ignorance, idleness and disease”.

This article appeared in the print edition of the Evening Telegraph: 18/02/2020 [Online] Available: https://www.eveningtelegraph.co.uk/fp/what-are-the-five-great-evils-of-todays-society/  [Accessed: 2020, Feb 25]

Susan worked consistently since leaving school and expected to retire at 60 years old until she received a letter stating that pension regulations were changing and she was required to work five more years. Sadly, at 61 years of age, she was made redundant and applied for Universal Credit. At her first meeting, she was told she needed to pursue 35 hours of work per week and, if necessary, take two or three jobs to amass that amount. She said to her work coach: “I just don’t know if I’ve got it in me.”

Imagine that was your mother or your grandmother. Susan was just one of the stories documented in the three-part BBC Two series entitled ‘Universal Credit: Inside the Welfare State’, which concluded last Tuesday. Alongside full-time parents, carers, students and the retired, Susan is numbered among the 8.4 million “economically inactive” citizens UK Home Secretary Priti Patel referred to last week as a potential labour force to fill roles left vacant due to new immigration regulations.

We live in conflicted times. It is true that unemployment is at a record high, both full- and part-time employees are seeing a higher-than-average pay rise, fuel prices are currently stable and the supermarket price war has prevented rocketing food prices. However, there is another layer to those truths and it was epitomised by 20-year-old Jenny, who was shown trying survive on a zero hour contract and earning less than £7 per hour as the national living wage still sits below the real living wage.

The UK social security system sought to undermine the five great evils observed by its founder, the late William Beveridge, which he described in 1942 as “want, squalor, ignorance, idleness and disease”. 70 years on and those barriers still exist, although neither their manifestation nor the response they require is the same in 2020. If I provided my own iteration of today’s evils, I would offer: poverty, destitution, illness, ignorance and narrative. I will try to offer a very brief summary of each of these.

Firstly, there is a delineation which must be made between poverty and destitution, around which Joseph Rowntree Foundation has done some great work. Secondly, I think illness, rather than disease, more broadly connects everything from disability to mental ill health, which is rising. Finally, ignorance, to which Beveridge referred and I still believe exists, is the societal lack of awareness to the nature and extent of poverty and this relates to the existential narrative about people who experience it.

Truthfully, a resilient response to these challenges requires a robust social security system as well as sustainable healthcare, a vibrant economy creating well-paid and secure jobs, access to suitable affordable housing and, above all of that, a new narrative that, like our new legislation in Scotland, views social security as an investment in people. And here is the good news – none of this is beyond our reach.