Why the current approach to poverty is wrong

North News and Pictures , NewcastleDiscussion about poverty starts and ends in the wrong place. A new study by the Webb Memorial Trust suggests that, if we wish to reduce poverty, we need to reframe the way that we think about it. Rather than starting with the problem, we need to start with the solution and create the society we want.

To understand this perspective, we need to go back a hundred years. In the first decade of the last century, there was a wave of optimism that we could plan for a good society. A growing sense of public responsibility led to groups of citizens working hand in hand with the state to ensure that everyone could have a decent standard of life. This new mood was encapsulated in Beatrice Webb’s 1909 Minority Report on the Poor Law. The report suggested that five principles could ensure minimum standards of decency for everyone:

  1. Poverty has structural causes
  2. Prevention is better than cure
  3. Dependency should be avoided
  4. Services should be integrated
  5. State action should be primary; voluntary action secondary

The implementation of these principles in a planned society produced massive improvements in the standard of living and all but ended destitution.

Our research found that reports on poverty have little value

in influencing anyone and may even do more harm than good.

Despite these gains, our sense of optimism about further progress appears to have dissipated. An average of two well-researched reports are published each month telling us how big the problem of poverty is. A whole industry of academics, think tanks, churches and charities give repeated messages that poverty is getting worse.

What is conspicuously absent is any sense of solution. We have a superabundance of material on the definition, characteristics and prevalence of the problem. There is a common pattern in which authors say that the results present a challenge to government, yet offer little guidance about what government might do.

Our research found that such reports have little value in influencing anyone and may even do more harm than good. The reports tend to reinforce the idea that poverty is too big a problem to deal with and people turn off from it. Race campaigners in the United States have learned to avoid statistics highlighting the problem because they tend to reinforce prejudice and undermine the search for solutions. Persistent negative messages breed pessimism and such an attitude impairs the ability to create positive change.

In a democratic society, social change needs to be rooted in the positive aspirations, interests and desires of ordinary citizens. To understand their views, we asked both adults and children what they wanted from a good society and how poverty fitted with this.

In a survey of 10,000 adults, the qualities that people most treasured were social ones such as fairness, security, safety, freedom, compassion and tolerance. It was clear that what people stressed was the importance of relationships in society, rather than wealth, money and power. People want enough to live on and to have a few luxuries but money is not what makes them happy.

Poverty is an enemy of a good society, and almost everyone agrees that government should intervene to address it. What divides people is whether state help should extend beyond subsistence level. Children living in poor areas, however, were clear about what they needed and wrote a manifesto called Poverty ends now. This sets out six principles: a minimum standard of living, an equal school experience for all, affordable decent homes for everyone, access to three healthy meals a day, a feeling of safety at home and in communities, and affordable transport.

The study shows that people feel a big disconnect between the society they have and the society they want. This breeds a sense of powerlessness and a frustration with politicians who seem incapable of developing a narrative of a good society that meets their needs. As we approach the election, there are numerous complaints in the media and elsewhere that none of the political parties has a viable plan to deliver this. Organisations working on poverty have not come up with a plan either, and this is a recipe for drift.

It is clear that we need new perspective, energy and agency if we are to make progress. So, where is this going to come from? How can we think about the roles of civil society, business and government in addressing poverty creatively while being mindful of the background realities and finances that constrain what can be done? How can we plan to get the society we want? How can we mobilise people to think about this creatively? These are questions that the Trust will address in the next stage of its work.


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Fernando Centeno
Fernando Centeno
9 years ago

I like,and agree, with your overview of this “poverty” problem, but I do not agree that there is “little guidance about what government might do.” In fact, there is too much “guidance” which is simply ignored. The deeper problem is that those of us who try to “move the needle” find that we do not even have a real peer group with whom to consolidate and advance serious ideas interfacing governmental barriers, coupled by the fact that we have governments who do not even acknowledge that a serious problem even exists. Poverty fighters do not have the influence to nudge policymakers to tackle structural poverty because their jobs depend on pleasing those who got them there in the first place.

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