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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton  

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        The politics of drinking

April 25, 2011



Drunks, junkies and fatsos: the return of the 
undeserving poor

David Cameron stepped up last week to slap us when weíre down, saying people who are sick because they drink too much, eat too much or take the wrong sort of drugs shouldnít get incapacity benefit because itís all their fault.

The BBCís home editor Mark Easton was quick to pull apart the argument in his blog. For one thing the statistic the prime minister was upset about, that 80,000 addicts are on benefit, actually tells us that these kind of claimants are reducing in number.

For another thing, Easton asks, where do you draw the line when it comes to fault? How about the person who climbs on a horse, fully aware this is a dangerous thing to do, falls off and is unable to work through injury. Isnít that their fault? Shouldnít they be denied incapacity benefit too?

All this is enough to wreck this modern version of the Victorian notion of the undeserving poor. But thereís a further point that can be made to expose the fact that Cameronís target is not merely the undeserving but poor people in general. Because itís not just how much you drink or drug or eat that determines whether it makes you ill, itís how much money youíve got.

As I keep saying,  if youíre among the most deprived fifth of the population youíre six times more likely to die an alcohol-related death than if youíre among the least deprived fifth. Even though, as a whole, this poorest segment of the population drinks less than the richest.

In his autobiography last year Keith Richards said heíd survived so long because he was wealthy enough to afford high quality drugs

When it comes to food, too, research suggests that while obesity is no more prevalent among the poor than the rich, the health problems associated with being fat are suffered disproportionately by people who experience greater deprivation.

Of course, Cameron has no desire to tackle the structural inequalities that underlie addiction and obesity. So instead, as the privileged have always done, he blames what is essentially a moral lack.

But itís not will power thatís lacking among the undeserving poor, itís political power, the power to improve their lives.

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