Four thoughts about the ‘poverty narrative’
by Keiran Goddard
Rethinking Poverty argues that the ‘narrative around poverty is broken’ … and, assuming we want our social narratives to render experience with something like fidelity, it’s a claim that is hard to dispute.
The traditional explanatory framework around poverty is neither coherent nor complete. The continuum between structural immiseration at one end and individual moral failing at the other is patently inadequate, both as a description of reality and as a prescription for change.
Instead, Rethinking Poverty calls for a positive vision of what a future without poverty might look like, based on a re-centring of deep agency, individual potential and environmental sustainability.
Constructing this vision will most likely be a task that is both gradual and collective. There will be fundamental questions to be tackled about redistribution, the future of the labour market, individual ownership in an automated economy, and the shifting boundaries between the state, the market and voluntary action.
For now though, here are four thoughts about the make-up of the narrative itself, relating to how it might be framed, how it might be optimised, and what tensions it might usefully be able to hold.
Is there a role for self-preventing prophecy?
Rethinking Poverty deals in the politics of the possible, something that has become a lost art in mainstream discourse.
When it comes to effecting change, there are obvious advantages to this approach: it prioritises co-design and human action. It understands that you are much more likely to fight for a future you had a role in creating. But even when it is operationalised alongside iterative policy work, is a positive vision enough?
If we accept that change is coming and that socioeconomic and technological forces are going to deliver us a radically altered future, the question then becomes how best to encourage mobilisation around the collective project of shaping the outcome/s. A positive vision is part of the answer. But so is its obverse.
Running alongside the positive vision should be a narrative detailing clearly the consequences of inaction. What would poverty look like in 10 or 50 years’ time if things were to continue along current trajectories?
Doing this has two possible benefits. First, the well-established phenomenon of self-preventing prophecy. And second, the rather more speculative hope that social change, like any change process, is best optimised by having a hell to run away from as well as a heaven to run towards.
The scarcity and abundance paradox
Currently, there are two dominant ‘future narratives’, both of which have significant material implications.
The first centres around resource scarcity, primarily as realised through environmental degradation and global warming. The second centres on resource abundance, primarily as realised through automation and artificial intelligence.
Any new narrative about poverty will have to negotiate these seemingly opposite extremes. Is it possible to end poverty in a world of increasing scarcity? Is it possible to sustain poverty in a world of increasing abundance?
How then, to produce a navigable, clear vision from within this paradox?
I would argue that it can be done only by keeping the discourse focused on the question of whether, in any given future scenario, equality is enhanced, maintained or eroded. To do so does not provide answers, but it goes some way towards clarifying the range of questions we might ask.
For example, in a future defined by abundance, the level of poverty may be dictated less by the nature of the automation than by who ultimately owns the machines and can profit from them. Similarly, in a future defined by extreme resource scarcity, poverty may be dictated less by the nature of the scarcity than by the systems we have in place to ameliorate, democratise and redistribute in the face of it.
Detoxifying the end of growth
For decades we have chased endless economic growth as if it were entirely synonymous with social progress and innovation. There are signs that this consensus is breaking, primarily under pressure from those pointing out the environmental costs associated with fuelling the ongoing expansion.
A new narrative around poverty may have a role to play in extending this critique, by re-framing the question of perpetual growth around social and economic outcomes. It may ask how we stabilise surplus and innovation for the common good, or how we translate it into something other than a manufactured need for increased consumption. Ultimately, it may need to grapple with how we make a meaningful and enduring link between progress and happiness.
Reimagining human worth
There is a simple but central challenge for any future vision of a world without poverty. It will need to imagine a society that is capable of holding, generating and talking about human worth in a way that isn’t centred purely around economic contribution.
This will need to be a golden thread running through any successful work of reimagining. So, for example, discussions around universal basic income should be framed not solely in terms of individual economic benefit, but also in terms of its potential to contribute to the development of multiple non-monetary hierarchies and the enablement of enterprise, risk-taking and self-actualisation.
Likewise, emancipatory claims made for technology and data should be made within a framework that prioritises human wellbeing, rather than being narrowly focused on increased or improved outputs.
It is not enough for us to hold a vision of a future without poverty. We must also ensure that it is held both by and within the very systems and technologies through which we will begin to shape it.
Keiran Goddard is Head of External Affairs at the Association of Charitable Foundations.
Read more from the Rethinking Poverty discussion forum:
- From paternalistic elites to participatory networks – Compass Director, Neal Lawson on Rethinking Poverty
- Rethinking ideology, a view from the US – former Ford Foundation senior program officer, Christopher Harris
- Imagining a new future – former Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust Secretary, Stephen Pittam on Rethinking Poverty