Relational Poverty is a pervasive feature of Western societies, affecting both the affluent classes and the economically deprived.
- Birth rates in almost all high income countries – and notably in Singapore and Hong Kong – are below the replacement rate, representing a weakening both of the future tax base and also of the relational infrastructure.
- In 2009, 39 million prescriptions for anti-depressants were dispensed in the UK – more than four times higher than in 1989. One in ten American women takes an antidepressant drug. The number of 15 year olds suffering from anxiety and depression has increased by 70% since the mid-1980s.
- Thirty-five percent of American adults older than 45 are chronically lonely, as opposed to 20% of a similar group only a decade earlier, according to a 2010 American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) survey.
- The number of elderly is growing. By 2050, over-80s in the UK will number 5.5 million.
How we measure wealth
It is a truism that money can’t buy you love. And yet the goal of lifting the poor above a certain income level, and thus “out of poverty”, has eclipsed the equally urgent need to maintain society’s relational infrastructure – the network of supportive relationships that human beings at every economic level rely on for their identity, education and wellbeing. The result is a decline of relational capital in developed societies as Relational Distance has increased through the operation of the economic system.
Relational poverty among the affluent
Although close communities remain a cultural ideal in the West, the sheer scale of the churning produced by today’s global capital and labour markets has made Relational Poverty a familiar experience. Families, widely “dehydrated” into nuclear units, are often dispersed further through job mobility or divorce. There is an epidemic of loneliness, particularly among the elderly, whose children may be too far away to provide personal support. Long-term communities of place have given way to shifting communities of shared interest. And advances in communication technology, with their massive potential for making connections, can neither keep pace with, nor fully compensate, the increasing levels of Relational Distance across most of society.
Relational poverty among the poor
The same capital movements that drive jobs and people to new centres of growth also create areas of deprivation, typically with high levels of unemployment and personal debt. Financial difficulties place relationships under stress, and stressed relationships frequently cause depression and loss of self-esteem with a negative impact on employability. In the UK, particularly, the breakup of older communities through rehousing during the latter half of the 20th century has created neighborhoods plagued by low social contact and levels of relational deprivation that impact on the skills and behaviours of younger generations.
Relational poverty can be alleviated by policies that build local relational infrastructure.
Civic identity and welfare
Welfare is more efficient when administered at a scale where those funding and benefiting from payments share a sense of common identity. This sense of shared interest and belonging, as well as the personal awareness of need, is often stronger at city level than national level, so there is a case for creating national standards within which cities have more control over how welfare money is spent
A similar argument applies at family level. At the same time as individuals have become better educated, supported and resourced, families (which after all contain most people’s closest and most enduring relationships) have largely been stripped of economic functions. Consequently, one way to increase society’s Relational Wealth is to take measures that build relational capital in extended families, encourage durability in family partnerships, and help people to be mutually-reliant as well as self-reliant.
At a point where national welfare and healthcare budgets are under pressure it makes sense to put in place tax incentives encouraging co-location of family members, shortening Relational Distance to make it easier for people to provide support and care for vulnerable members. Similar effects can be produced by prioritizing job creation at city level so that graduates and job seekers have more options of employment close to where their family and support networks already are.
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