Politicians, charities, thinktanks, medics and other authority figures love lumping people together and giving them snappy and patronising labels. This week the Joseph Rowntree Foundation gave another outing to JAMs, those who are “Just About Managing”, a term taken up with enthusiasm by the great May herself.
The Foundation’d report, published this week, is astonishing. By my reading, 19 million people are either “just about managing” or not managing at all. That number increased by four million between 2008/9 and 2014/15. They all fall short of what is called the “Minimum Income Standard”, either by a lot or by a small amount.
For some reason the JRF’s webpage announcing the survey doesn’t include the value of the MIS. It’s very hard to find it anywhere on its site. If you move in those circles, you’re supposed to know it. The political/thinktank/charity world likes to speak to itself.
In fact, it’s a lot of money: a lot of money if you are genuinely poor, that is. For a couple with two children it is £40,366 a year. The JAM group includes a lot of middle class people. Indeed, we are British and we like a moan, so it is hard to find anyone who would admit to anything other than “getting by” or “struggling a bit” or “just about managing”: if you have an £800,000 mortgage on your £1m house, and you have two kids in private school, and two cars, a couple of ponies and a couple of subscriptions to a gym, you are probably “just about managing” too.
In the hands of Teresa May and others, “just about managing” is a moral judgement. The JAMs whose votes she is soliciting are the deserving poor: indeed, they are not even poor. A useful piece in The Sun this week sought to define the term using a report from the Policy Exchange, another “think tank”. Reporter Emma Lake notes that Policy Exchange describes JAMs as the people who “make the country work”.
“The report says they have a strong commitment to family life, do not take expensive holidays and while they are not poor they do not have significant disposable incomes or set aside large amounts for their retirement.” She gives a figure of between £19,000 and £21,000 for individuals as the minimum income standard.
The Policy Exchange’s JAMs manage to get by each month, but depend on a regular salary. If wages don’t move, and prices increase, they’re screwed.
Nonetheless, they can take comfort from the support of the Prime Minister. As she said in her first speech as PM, “”I know you’re working around the clock, I know you’re doing your best and I know that sometimes life can be a struggle. The Government I lead will be driven, not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours.”
The Government she leads is going to be disastrous for those people, thanks to Brexit, but that’s an argument for another time. I’m more interested in what I call the CBAs, for “Can’t Be Arsed”. These are people who may have reached the Minimum Income Standard, either by working in jobs they despise and are despised for doing or through the benefit system.
A town like Cheltenham, apparently pretty and middle class, is ringed by estates where some people are simply left out of our current political considerations because they don’t, or can’t, participate. I went to an estate this week that is so poor its branch of Bargain Booze has closed. Instead it will be getting a British Heart Foundation furniture shop, selling to the poor the nice stuff the middle classes have given away.
The poor tend not to know they can get the middle classes’ giveaways for nothing, by using Freecycle or Freegle, or they are too exhausted and disorganised to do so. Nor do they know about something like FutureLearn, where they can do genuinely useful and enjoyable courses for nothing. They know about Poundworld and Poundland, so useful for Rizla papers, but they are a long way from where they live. The same goes for Lidl and Aldi, which sell better fresh food than the middle classes are buying at Sainsbury’s. They’re too far away or they Can’t Be Arsed.
What do we do about them, Mrs May? Give them access to a helpline?