New research suggests that the work-shy scroungers who many in government believe live off benefits as a ‘lifestyle choice’ may not actually exist. This follows a recent suggestion that we are now a ‘Downton Abbey style’ society and a report from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission which identifies a ‘cosy club’ of those in powerful positions. The report suggests the UK is “deeply elitist” following an analysis of the backgrounds of more than 4,000 business, political, media and public sector leaders. Small elites, educated at independent schools and Oxbridge, still dominate top roles, suggests the study. I’m not sure we can compare contemporary society to that of Downton Abbey’s Britain at the end of the First World War and into the 1920’s, however, I agree we are headed in a direction reminiscent of the inequality of a hierarchical past founded on privilege and wealth. Worse still, from my perspective, is the growing impoverishment that accompanies the growing inequality in our society and the ease with which those in power seek to demonise those most vulnerable. We have already had government implying the growth in food bank usage is due to individual moral defect when their own research, conducted by DEFRA, suggests turning to a food bank is the strategy of last resort once all other possible strategies have been exhausted by those unable to feed their families. Then we had Ian Duncan Smith’s tall tale of ‘feckless layabouts’, who are characterture villains of the ‘B’ movie variety designed to simplify issues which require significant structural change in approach to education, housing, employment, income and taxation. Then there are Mr Cameron’s ‘troubled families’. They are another stereotype beloved of successive government to blame the woes of their world upon. Sadly, for government, locating problems with individuals is a doomed simplistic approach, as the trouble families programme is discovering. Troubled families are actually people whose lives are out of control due to multiple inter-related problems none of us could cope with easily i.e. poor mental and physical health, poor education, low incomes, rent arrears and poor housing. However, if we look beyond the labels of troubled families and feckless layabouts research suggests many others in society today are also struggling to attain a basic level of control over their lives. Concerns over how to feed the family and heat the home this winter will be the focus of many parents’ efforts. Add to this that many of those homes are damp and in poor condition with families experiencing increased financial insecurity, related to zero hours contracts, and it is apparent that our elected political elite are failing us as a nation when they resort to simplistically blaming individuals. These are actually the price some pay to maintain an economic approach that widens the divide between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ in society. That inequality thrives within a free market economic system is not really debatable if we accept Thomas Piketty’s analysis in ‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century’. However, whether inequality matters is debatable, and this is a debate we are yet to have openly in this country. Economist Friedrich Hayek (beloved of Mrs Thatcher) compared the free market to a game in which there is no point in calling an outcome just or unjust. In this context the Food Bank co-exists on the high street with the designer shop and banks for the wealthy without shame. The problem is whether we play the game or not, it is being played with us. Whatever we do or abstain from doing, our withdrawal will change nothing. In essences many in society today are engaged in a game made up of make believe free players where the appearance of freedom masks the dynamic and unpredictable process by which sudden economic change, and ultimately disadvantage, may visit upon a citizen at anytime. With a general election looming it is time to raise the level of debate and decide are we happy to live in an unequal society and are we happy to continue to blame individuals for their own misfortune? If we are happy with ‘B’ movie heroes, villains and solutions we had better hope no such misfortune ever befalls us lest we become those characterture villains so beloved of tabloid headlines and government ministers.