We do not live in a meritocracy – we live in the myth of one. For the majority of people, wealth, freedom, power and self-actualisation (or the lack of them) are inherited; the extent to which you are likely to enjoy any of them is dictated by a host of contingencies (the main ones being where you were born and to whom).
On the Isle of Man, data around these issues is scant. But looking at what data there is, it’s safe to say the same problems exist.
Here, 9.3 percent of households are fuel poor. That means almost one in ten islanders spend ten percent of their income or more on fuel each week (after housing costs). Additionally, in 2020, 16.5 percent of employees earned less than the living wage. Combined with reports of “unprecedented” levels of homelessness and some of the most vulnerable having to choose between“heating and eating”, it’s clear that poverty is alive and well on the Isle of Man.
This situation is not inevitable. Rather, it is the result of a narrative which says, either by raw talent or hard work, the very best will inevitably ascend society’s ladder. Failure to climb means you weren’t talented enough or didn’t work hard enough – that you didn’t merit it.
Though debunked with just a modicum of critical thought, the meritocracy narrative has a firm grip on Manx society. It’s easy to see why: it reassures those at the top that they deserve to be there; and that the poor warrant their lot. In other words, it reinforces the status quo and gives politicians permission to enact regressive policies that make it ever more difficult to escape poverty – to build a poverty trap.
And this is exactly what we've done. According to the Select Committee of Tynwald on Poverty, income support and job seekers allowance are “simply not enough to live on”– and, perhaps more damningly, the amounts paid often “lack any policy basis”. These benefits, remember, are aimed at supporting the most vulnerable people – and, as such, it’s reasonable to expect that the amounts paid would be calculated by looking at things such as the price of groceries, heating, travel, and so on. Sadly, it appears that this is not what we have done – with politicians presumably plucking figures out of thin air instead.
With this in mind, it's unsurprising that the welfare system isn't up to task. And, when you're dependent on a broken system, the things you need to better your situation are often simply unattainable. In other words, you are trapped – as are your children, as are theirs.
While the boot of regressive policy keeps those at the bottom firmly in their place, those who enact it are kept percolating near the top via a host of class conventions and biases, opportunity access, and nepotism. Just as in the UK, this concoction ensures that a group of well-educated, wealthy people continually circle around positions of power – with those assuming such positions often coming from similar backgrounds, and therefore often holding similar views and priorities.
Together, these twin processes are damaging society. So long as regressive policy keeps the poor down – and class conventions pin those at the top to the ceiling – we condemn ourselves to the mediocrity of those buoyed by unearned privilege, and to losing out on scores of potential leaders, doctors, lawyers, scientists, and artists from the bottom.
For the good of the Island, we need to deconstruct the Manx poverty trap.