The Micawber Principle

What is the only maths lesson children need?

In Charles Dickens’s novel, David Copperfield, there is a character called Wilkins Micawber, an eternal optimist known for saying that “something will turn up”.

Micawber was a poor man but he lived in expectation of becoming rich, sometimes foolishly taking on debts.

But it is thanks to Mr Micawber that we have one of the most famous sayings in personal finance which is often referred to as The Micawber Principle.

Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen and six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.

Arguably, this is the most important maths lesson children need to learn.

Income Equals Outcome

Spending less than you earn and living within your means is a crucial life lesson for all children to learn. Persistently living beyond your means results in disaster but if only it were that simple.

The problem we face though is that ‘the poor’ can’t actually avoid the Micawber Principle.

Socioeconomic disadvantage has never been more profound and income poverty is widespread. It was the ex-Education Secretary Justine Greening who said,  “In modern Britain, where you are born, where you live, where you go to school and where you work directly affects where you get to in life.”

The gaps between Britain’s richest and poorest only widen from birth and the cuts we have experienced for years and years means that the inadequate incomes of the poorest citizens of the UK are unable to cope while the prices paid for essentials are increasing.

According to the End Child Poverty coalition, there are now constituencies within the UK where more than half of children are growing up in poverty and hundreds of thousands of families often do not have enough money to clothe and feed their children.

End Child Poverty blames the Government’s freeze on children’s benefits (currently in place until the end of the decade) for the “growing” problem”.

Sam Royston, Chair of End Child Poverty and Director of Policy and Research at the Children’s Society, says,

No family in modern Britain should be struggling to put food on the table, heat their homes and clothe their children.  End Child Poverty is calling on the Chancellor to end the freeze on children’s benefits, and to invest in interest free credit for low income families, to ensure that poverty doesn’t result in spiralling debt.

Take a look at their interactive heat map here.

There is little doubt that “social mobility is going backwards” and that those that really need to pay the most attention of the Micawber Principle are the out of touch income rich MPs who talk about social mobility but haven’t had to live on £30 a week.

Poverty is an insult to us all but especially those with an “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six.”

Result: misery

Welcome poverty!..Welcome misery, welcome houselessness, welcome hunger, rags, tempest, and beggary! Mutual confidence will sustain us to the end!

One thought on “The Micawber Principle

  • October 13, 2022 at 6:00 am

    Hi John! I came across your article while browsing favorite quotes of Wilkins Micawber to assist a friend who is reading David Copperfield for the first time. Your article is both delightful and insightful. We have the same problems across the pond, and we have the same sclerotic, blinkered attitudes as regards the need to eliminate poverty and enhance social immobility as apparently exist in the U.K. Finding that your views mirror my own make me feel more hopeful. Thank you!


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