Both/and not either/or: we need to rethink poverty AND rethink politics
by Caroline Hartnell
‘If the crucial issue is how to ensure adequate resources for all, why are we asked to discuss the ‘Good Life’ at all?’ writes John Veit-Wilson. ‘… what they [poor people] and all of us need before all else is adequate resources to implement our own choices.’ Few could disagree with this, or with the Taxpayers Against Poverty’s strapline which reads ‘No citizen without an affordable home and an adequate income in work or unemployment’, as Paul Nicolson sets out in his blog.
‘If community action and mobilisation are needed,’ Veit-Wilson continues, ‘… that work should first be among those non-poor social groups who even resist sharing existing resources to ensure everyone has enough to be able to make their own choices about the good life and inclusion just like the rest of us do. That means political campaigning.’
There is the rub. In plain English this means the better-off paying more taxes to enable redistribution to take place – something that is barely politically feasible at present. As a nation, we are truly Thatcher’s children; taxation is widely regarded as theft. The 2017 Labour Party Manifesto emphasizes strongly that ‘we will not ask ordinary households to pay more. A Labour government will guarantee no rises in income tax for those earning below £80,000 a year … Only the top 5 per cent of earners will be asked to contribute more in tax to help fund our public services.’ When I started paying income tax in 1971, ‘standard rate’ was 33 per cent as opposed to the present-day 20 per cent, which shows how far we have moved.
New Labour undoubtedly made strides in reducing poverty, especially child poverty – though inequality levels soared. But, as Barry Knight points out in his recent article, ‘the fatal flaw in the policies of the last Labour government was that they were easily undone. Implemented through stealth, Labour politicians made little attempt to reach into people’s hearts and minds to build a narrative about why poverty matters.’ Tony Blair and Gordon Brown talked a lot about the need to support ‘hard-working families’ – which clearly didn’t include those idling on benefits.
“It was so easy to undo Labour policies because the whole concept of ‘poverty’ is so toxic and divisive”
It was so easy to undo Labour policies because the whole concept of ‘poverty’ is so toxic and divisive. Nothing could have been easier than reviving the old deserving/undeserving poor narrative in the new clothes of striving/skiving. The image of the hardworking person leaving the house for work at 7am and glancing enviously at the closed curtains of the unemployed person next door happily snoozing away was a potent one. Cutting benefits for stay-in-bed skivers was politically easy – never mind that so many of them turn out to be the ‘striving’ working poor and disabled people. We should also remember that if we reversed ‘austerity’ in the UK and reinstated benefits as they were, people on benefits would still be poor. They would not have adequate resources to implement their own choices.
Albert Ruesga, until recently president of the Greater New Orleans Foundation, in an email provides valuable insights into this sort of dynamic from a US perspective. He sympathises with Veit-Wilson’s puzzlement over why Knight’s article doesn’t put more emphasis on asking ‘why everyone in society doesn’t have the resources to take an inclusive part in conventional society’ – and he provides an answer. ‘This line of questioning is skirted in progressive US circles for many reasons,’ he says, ‘the most obvious being that many on the right believe the poor are by nature too lazy or unmotivated to take advantage of the many opportunities that are offered to them, etc, etc. Addressing this question directly makes many progressives fearful …’
Veit-Wilson clearly feels that ‘rethinking poverty’ is a bit of a diversion: ‘Discussing the Good Life and how deprived communities can cope while cuts last doesn’t rethink poverty and is not a solution to it.’ As I see it there are two distinct reasons why we do need this new approach – both relating to the role of the state as the ultimate guarantor of a good life for all its citizens.
“If we are to have governments that see it as their role to guarantee a good life… to all members of society, we need a durable consensus that this is what we as a society expect”
The first relates directly to this crucial role of the state. If we are to have governments that see it as their role to guarantee a good life – including an affordable home and sufficient income to live the life of one’s choice – to all members of society, we need a durable consensus that this is what we as a society expect, and will defend, as we do with the NHS, for example. This can be achieved only if we are able to ‘reach into people’s hearts and minds to build a narrative about why poverty matters’. Rethinking Poverty argues forcefully that talking about poverty is never going to be the way to build this new narrative. Focusing on what people, rich and poor alike, see as the elements of a good life seems a more promising approach to building consensus.
The second reason relates to the sort of society we build. There are many reasons why carrying on as we are but with greater fairness and equality isn’t going to work, the most obvious being climate change. Much has been written about the limits of economic growth. Creative community initiatives aren’t just a way for poor people to survive until austerity is lifted; they are also a way of experimenting with various ways of achieving a sustainable society that works for all its citizens.
Take the Somerset town of Frome, which has seen a dramatic fall in emergency hospital admissions since it began a collective project to combat isolation. While across the whole of Somerset emergency hospital admissions rose by 29 per cent during the three years of the study, in Frome they fell by 17 per cent. ‘What this provisional data appears to show,’ writes Guardian columnist George Monbiot, ‘is that when isolated people who have health problems are supported by community groups and volunteers, the number of emergency admissions to hospital falls spectacularly.’ With an ageing population and ever-increasing medical possibilities, the costs of health services are likely to go on rising. The Frome experiment shows how these costs could be cut.
“Creative community initiatives … are also a way of experimenting with various ways of achieving a sustainable society that works for all its citizens”
Or take Preston, a town that had hit rock bottom but turned its fortunes around when local councillor Matthew Brown teamed up with Neil McInroy of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) to persuade six of the public bodies on their doorstep to commit to spending locally wherever possible. Or Modbury in Devon, the first town in Europe to outlaw plastic bags, as long ago as May 2007, proving that it was possible. Now plastic bags are on their way to being outlawed across the country, with plastic straws next in the firing line.
These small-scale local initiatives can undoubtedly help disadvantaged communities to survive through hard times, but they can also provide better models for the whole of society, which can feed into government thinking at all levels.
So yes, we need a state that guarantees adequate resources for all – who could disagree? But what sort of state do we want? What should it do? How will it know what to do? This is a conversation we need to have, and hopefully ‘rethinking poverty’ can help us on the way. This isn’t an either/or matter. We need to rethink politics and rethink poverty – it’s very much both/and.
Caroline Hartnell convenes the Rethinking Poverty blog.
- Read John Veit-Wilson’s piece, ‘This isn’t rethinking poverty’
- Read Paul Nicolson’s piece, ‘There have been important successes in our attempts to end poverty’