Poverty needs a new story
by Barry Knight
Our society is drifting. Nowhere is this more evident than in the fight against poverty. Without an underlying story to guide action, progress has stalled. Around one-in-five of the population live in chronic poverty – the same as in 2005.
Our traditional remedies – work and welfare – are no longer sufficient. Social security payments leave many people struggling to make ends meet, while economic growth produces low paid jobs.
A year ago, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation launched its five-point strategy to end poverty in the UK. After a flurry of initial publicity, the initiative appears to have lost traction, and none of the political parties used the proposals in their election manifestos.
The underlying problem is that poverty campaigners have been running up the down escalator for decades, trying to squeeze more and more out of the post-war settlement and getting less and less in return. They know their campaigns are increasingly falling on deaf ears. Structural explanations of poverty have little resonance because people blame the poor themselves for their plight. Fact-based campaigns to explode the ‘myths of poverty’ reinforce, rather than challenge, stereotypes of people on benefits. The result is that the public argument is being lost. Justin Watson from Oxfam admits that charities are getting it wrong:
‘There is a growing consensus that the narratives used by the third sector, however well-meaning and “right”, have been rejected. Take “poverty”, a term that is politically divisive, laced with stigma and highly contested, to the point of still having to persuade people that it exists at all in the UK.’
A five-year study by the Webb Memorial Trust suggests that the word ‘poverty’ is the wrong starting point. It has a toxic effect, immediately dividing people emotionally and politically.
We need a new approach – one that operates at a more creative and inclusive level of thinking. Rather than addressing what we don’t want – poverty – we need to develop what we do want – a society without poverty. This approach redesigns society, developing new priorities, structures and processes so that poverty becomes obsolete.
So, what do people want? Extensive research based on surveys, focus groups and participative research suggests that people seek a new story for their society. Although people’s views are complicated and nuanced so that they cannot be captured in opinion polls, our results suggest that there are five core principles that express what people want:
- We all have a decent basic standard of living
- So, we are secure and free to choose how to lead our lives
- Developing our potential and flourishing materially and emotionally
- Participating, contributing and treating all with care and respect
- And building a fair and sustainable future for the next generations
Taken together, these principles give a new narrative for a good society. People want to be secure and free, meaning that they have enough to live on with something left over, but have no desire to be rich. What matters most is connections to family and friends. Relationships are the key to a fulfilling life.
The principles transcend the traditional split between left and right in politics. Our politicians seem to miss this in favour of narrow pursuits. The right sees the pursuit of wealth as key, even though this threatens the destruction of our ecosystem. The left pursues social policy, which takes us back to yesterday’s world of the welfare state for which there is little capacity, finance or public support. If the current bifurcation of political thought continues, policies and practices will continue to miss the mark.
Given the failure of the political class, progress depends on people stepping forward to create the society that they want. The key to this is leadership in civil society. Transformation in society, as Arnold Toynbee showed, comes from creative minorities. A recent UK example is the campaign for the living wage, which began life in a front room in London’s East End, and was brought to fruition through Citizens UK.
This offers an organic and inclusive model of change. It contrasts with transactional policy fixes such as tax credits or housing benefit that treat symptoms but do nothing to change underlying power relations in society. Above all, we need a different model of power an extensible resource that is shared between people, rather than one based on top down action by governments that deliver resources but retain the power.
Solutions to poverty have focussed on “doing to” the poor, rather than allowing them to do it for themselves or doing it with them. The poverty lobby needs to shift its mind-set from transactional policies that shift resources to transformational processes that shift power, and work together for a more inclusive model of change.
The primary domain for such action is where people live because that is what matters to them, and the primary agent of change is the coming generation. Evidence from our study suggest that very young people understand what needs to be done to transform society and do not carry the baggage of their elders.
This article was originally published on the Huffington Post blog on
Read more from the Rethinking Poverty discussion forum:
- Starting a conversation – Associate Editor of Alliance magazine, Andrew Milner, on the launch of Rethinking Poverty
- A narrative that resonates for single parents – Gingerbread Chief Executive, Rosie Ferguson
- From paternalistic elites to participatory networks – Compass Director, Neal Lawson on Rethinking Poverty