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Lives of the rich and famous

Kate Green on the problem of riches

Unjust Rewards, Polly Toynbee and David Walker (Granta, £12.99)

Toynbee and Walker's new book Unjust Rewards has created a ripple of excitement among anti-poverty activists: at last commentators are writing not about the problem of poverty, but about what Tawney described as the "problem of riches". The authors interviewed not those with perceived problems to be solved, but the city bankers and lawyers who see themselves as the solution. Even earlier this year, when the interviews were conducted, they were shocked at the crass ignorance and self-justification of these so-called 'masters of the universe', who argued that they deserved their excessive wealth because they 'worked harder' than the cleaners, childminders and caterers who cushioned their privileged existence, that government and charities 'couldn't be trusted' to spend money wisely - and who had absolutely no idea just what poverty is like in the UK today. £22,000 was seen as poverty pay by the bankers and the lawyers - but as Toynbee and Walker show, that's the current median income - and the rich had no idea how people could possibly get by on such a meagre amount.

The interviews of course were taking place before this autumn's financial meltdown. Today Toynbee and Walker's already blistering condemnation would no doubt be so much harsher - and deservedly - their case convincingly proved. A follow-up now with the interviewees to see what humility they may have learned would be instructive.

But if the interviews with the rich have attracted the most comment, excitement and attention, and clearly both appalled and fascinated the authors, it's the life stories of those living in poverty that for me were the most moving and to my surprise - eye-opening - part of the book. The myth that the poor are authors of their own misfortune, deserving what they get, is blown apart by the dignity and the effort for self- improvement of the low-income families and children in this book.

Unjust Rewards holds up a mirror in which to see ourselves, and it proves a shaming experience: we ought to feel deep discomfort with what it reveals. Our shocking inequality gap remains unaddressed by our political leaders, by a society that has not cared, that has wanted to believe that 'greed is good'. Perhaps one upside of the recent destruction of the myth of the markets will be that Toynbee and Walker's exposure of the real lives that lay behind that myth will not fall on deaf political ears. No one now can doubt the damage that unfettered money grabbing has done to all of us: the evidence has been clear to see. This must be taken as an opportunity to ensure that tackling inequality, poverty and injustice are our economic priorities as we put our shattered society back together in the coming months.