Blending past insights with new ways of thinking – the role of wellbeing in social progress
by Jennifer Wallace
Working for an organisation with a hundred-year history tends to change your perspective. While most analysis of the relationship between the state and citizens starts from the postwar social contract, the longevity of the Carnegie UK Trust (CUKT) provides an insight into what it was like before the state stretched out to provide social security and universal public services. The Carnegie UK Trust’s history is of the direct provision of social infrastructure – libraries, village halls, playing fields, the kinds of community assets that are so critical to the wellbeing of our communities. Our archives are a snapshot of social history.
In the 20th century, in addition to CUKT’s investments in infrastructure, we also invested in inquiries and research into social issues such as nutrition, social services, older people, civil society and young people’s rights. Our shifting focus from basic needs to rights and participation is an example of the impact that the welfare state had in the postwar period as material standards of life improved dramatically. And yet our societal wellbeing, taken as a whole, has not improved for a generation. Despite all the progress we have made, inequality continues to widen and new needs continue to materialise. Our postwar policy toolbox seems ill equipped to deal with them. This is the dilemma that Rethinking Poverty sets out to unpack and resolve.
A call for a narrative based on assets not deficits
In many ways Rethinking Poverty succeeds in this immense challenge. It sets out an argument that rather than addressing what we don’t want – poverty – we need to develop what we do want: a society without poverty. It is an appealing call for a political narrative based on assets, not deficits, which could provide citizens with hope and a stake in the future.
The strong voice of citizens comes through, the need to hear from the perspective of people in poverty rather than seeing them as numbers, problems and deficits to be corrected. As a former member of the Glasgow Poverty Truth Commission, I can attest to the power of personal testimony and the importance of making an emotional connection with people as people. In our review of Fairness Commissions we highlighted the need to balance expert views with ‘the imperative of engaging closely with citizens to design effective, compassionate polities …. Achieving a satisfactory balance which is seen to meaningfully build in the voices and wishes of citizens is becoming an increasingly politicised and urgent task.’ And we share the ambition of finding a new way to talk about social progress, fit for the 21st century, based on these voices.
A call for agency and control
Knight’s call to action on agency and control has to be heeded. Command and control is a strain of DNA that runs through our public services but this top-down model of public services seems to operate on the basis of diminishing returns, and arguably always left a proportion of the population behind. Our Enabling State work argues that public services must be designed to support personal and community agency. They must be flexible and responsive enough to wrap around, rather than get in the way of, existing strengths, aspirations and networks. An enabling state recognises that government and public services are just one aspect of our lives and that some aspects of our wellbeing are best improved through interactions with our friends, family and local community.
Our research with a small number of users of housing services reaffirms this. Three strong and recurrent themes emerged from the research as being important for people who access professional help and support: the joyful and fulfilled life – our friends, family and interests; the shared and neighbourhood life – when we all come together to support each other; and the independent but supported life – the control and ability to pursue individual interests, but with additional help and support to thrive, not just survive.
A failure to connect with international work on societal wellbeing
Despite the comprehensiveness of Rethinking Poverty, there are two gaps that I longed to be brought more strongly into the narrative. First, there is a wealth of evidence from international work on societal wellbeing which would further support the arguments made in the book. While wellbeing is mentioned throughout, and Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach, which is influential in the field, is highlighted early on, the arguments would be strengthened by connecting with this discipline.
Societal Wellbeing (a good society being more than the sum of individual wellbeing) is a holistic concept of social progress that brings the social, economic and environmental into our assessment of whether society is improving. Work by the OECD, EU and others has highlighted the universal nature of what humans need to flourish. The lists generated by domains of wellbeing work are remarkably similar to the five principles of a good society outlined by Knight:
- 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.
Our own engagement with the public has been far smaller than that of the Webb Memorial Trust, but we have found the public calling for similar outcomes to be at the heart of what governments seek to achieve. Much focus in the field of societal wellbeing is on measuring these domains of wellbeing and applying them to policy. This can be seen as a technocratic exercise, so it must be balanced with strong citizen voice to have validity.
What about Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?
This brings me to my second ‘gap’. In his review, Gerry Salole comments: ‘although it does make allusions to other contexts it remains really just about the UK (perhaps even just about England).’ From our perspective, based in Dunfermline (north of Edinburgh), Rethinking Poverty does feel like an analysis from England. Experiences from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would add depth and provide further food for thought. For example, Fairer Scotland was launched by the Scottish Government in 2015 with the intention of speaking to as many people as possible about the issues that mattered to them. Over 7,000 people took part in around 200 public discussions. The Fairer Scotland Action Plan was developed directly from those conversations and talks explicitly about poverty. Wales carried out a similarly democratic conversation on The Wales We Want, which informed the development of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. This legislation puts social, economic and environmental outcomes at the heart of the government’s work. Among the seven wellbeing goals is ‘a more equal Wales: A society that enables people to fulfil their potential no matter what their background or circumstances (including their socioeconomic circumstances)’.
Not ‘either/or’ but ‘both/and’
Focusing on the gaps begs the question: would these additional pieces of evidence and perspectives have an impact on the overall conclusions of Rethinking Poverty? My own view is that they would. In my introductory comments I refer to ‘a dilemma’, but perhaps that thinking leads us too quickly to a binary choice, between ‘either’ the old deficits model of poverty ‘or’ a new one based around assets and societal wellbeing. In-depth work on wellbeing in Northern Ireland teaches us that inequality has to be at the heart of our understanding of wellbeing, and that poverty and wellbeing are inextricably linked. The experience of Scotland shows that talking explicitly about poverty is still possible. While much is made of the cultural differences, the biggest difference between Scotland and England is in the political narrative that makes it possible to talk about poverty. So perhaps we are not in the end talking about ‘either/or’ but ‘both/and’; blending the knowledge of the past with new and different ways of talking about and improving social progress.
Jennifer Wallace is head of policy at the Carnegie UK Trust
Read more from the Rethinking Poverty discussion forum:
- Fairness: a basis for uniting people across class, gender, race, and other differences – Albert Ruesga on Rethinking Poverty
- What links community, politics and business? – Jessica Goble on the (real) Living Wage Campaign
- Democracy is Alive – David Bonbright on parallels between Rethinking Poverty and Constituent Voice