In London’s exclusive enclave of Hampstead, a leafy sprawl of detached houses with U-shaped driveways and neat front gardens, you’ll find luxury cars like Range Rovers, Teslas and the occasional Porsche dotted around, but also more modest vehicles like Minis and Volkswagen Golfs.
Walk just a mile or so further, among the social housing projects of historically poor Harlesden and you’ll be surprised (or unsurprised) to find gleaming high-spec specimens of BMWs, Mercedes and Audis in the shadows of high-rise blocks of compact apartments.
This is no scientific audit, but it would be fairly accurate to guess that there are as many luxury cars in the poor neighbourhoods as there are in the rich ones. It’s obvious that not all poor people drive expensive cars, but that so many economically disadvantaged people do betrays a fundamental problem with society as a whole.
One school of thought on the right of the political spectrum would say that poor people are poor because they are feckless. That is to say they make bad choices which make them — and keep them — poor. What is fundamentally intact is their freedom and autonomy to make choices. By this logic, if you waste your money on things you can’t really afford, you deserve to be poor.
On the left, a school of thought would say that poor people had no choice in being poor, they are exploited and trapped. This school believes that the poor cannot make free choices because they are kept at the level of subsistence by different forms of exploitation and neglect.
A more realistic understanding would be somewhere between those poles. It would go something like this: the poor are exploited as consumers as well as workers.
Of course, that’s a simplistic statement that needs unpacking. The picture is more nuanced, and that’s because the most corrosive and insidious aspects of social stratification are camouflaged in nuance.
The poor obviously aren’t forced or hoodwinked into buying things they don’t need. Instead, a whole array of contributing factors ensures that upward mobility remains difficult. Poverty is like a syndrome — a confluence of ailments, not a disease with a single pathogen.