Rethinking poverty, rethinking data
by Michael Weatherburn
The publication of Barry Knight’s Rethinking Poverty: What makes a good society? (2017) no doubt raised eyebrows when its author suggested that one of the most effective ways to eliminate poverty is to stop talking about it. Knight meant it in the literal sense: throughout his book he charts how many people believe that true poverty no longer exists, and voters find it a divisive and negative term. Connected, he argues that the standard conceptualisation and delivery of services designed to alleviate poverty is no longer fit for purpose: if only a minority of voters believe that modern poverty even exists, a centralised, problem-solving, paternalist state doling out charity to the needy is hard to argue for. Instead, Knight argues, we need to adopt a more decentralised, networked and above all positive approach to poverty, less focused on problem-solving negatives and instead describing and working towards the world we wish to create.
Metrics and their discontents
These conclusions have produced polarised but generally positive and constructive responses from reviewers. One of the most striking and thought-provoking features of this book is its data. Not so much the quantities themselves – how much of X or Y – but what is measured. Poverty measurement methods have differed for as long as poverty measurement has existed, and specific researchers have changed their metrics both when their techniques improved and when the circumstances changed (see below). Knight continues in this tradition. He calls on us to do more and flip the poverty question around: to address the positive and welcoming (a society without poverty) rather than the negative and alienating (poverty).
The reader gets the feeling that Knight’s intervention is consciously part of a broader trend in research and analysis which questions the historical origins of data, its subsequent architecture and provenance, and what these metrics are presently used for. This goes deeper than challenging the calculations themselves and questions whether the assumptions for the calculations make sense any more. For example, over the past two decades or so there have been an increasing number of studies of the historical origins of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), each of which has intervened not so much to increase GDP but instead to modify what we are measuring: wealth distribution, social mobility, sustainable development or human happiness, for example. Even ISO standards, deeply embedded within engineering systems and management structures the world over, have begun to receive similar treatment.
Rethinking Poverty starts with analysing how receptive certain constituencies are to specific concepts, rather than trying to persuade people to be passionate about topics in which they have no interest. Knight divides respondents, and by extension the UK population, into six groups: idealists (12% of the population), libertarians (19%), conservatives (23%), realists (18%), stoics (17%) and the disengaged (10%). This is important, the book argues, as policymakers need to understand the overlapping motivations of groups whom they are trying to convince. He shows that 94% of UK respondents want ‘fairness’, 94% ‘a fair chance for all’ and 86% a ‘level playing field’, but only around a third of each group believes each scenario presently exists in the UK.
One of the most interesting and controversial points of Rethinking Poverty is that it advocates side-lining some important metrics such as ‘footfall in the shops and increases in per capita GDP per year’. He is also wary of proposing new ones – what he calls the older ‘blueprint and recommendations’ approach. This would mean abandoning one of evidence-based policy’s most long-standing and cherished approaches: accumulating ever-more granular data on specific issues, then working out how to intervene in the points where the data shows the situation to be unsatisfactory.
Change is normal
Knight’s book contains qualitative data such as from focus groups showing there is also substantial public disagreement as to what to do about poverty if and where it does exist. Knight reveals that 32.6% of interviewees – the largest proportion in his sample – believe that the poor should receive ‘enough money to avoid starvation and homelessness but nothing more’. He shows that even the discussion of poverty can be toxic, as people have great preconceptions as to its meaning. As one focus group member stated, ‘Poverty to me is people starving and children having bare feet. I never see this here personally’.
“Even the discussion of poverty can be toxic, as people have great preconceptions as to its meaning”
Such abject, grinding poverty used to exist in the UK, and even then it came as a surprise to commentators who simply did not see it in their daily lives. As Rethinking Poverty mentions, and authors like Asa Briggs have previously discussed, British reformers such as Seebohm Rowntree were at the forefront of developing poverty analysis and formulating policy in both the public and private sector – in part to persuade people who did not believe that poverty existed. When we revisit the long-term development of poverty analysis, including Rowntree’s studies, we find that change over relatively long periods of time is normal. For example, Seebohm Rowntree’s 1899 study of poverty in York, published in 1901, focused on basic measures such as occupants per building, age of marriage, dietary requirements, and supplies of meat and milk. When Rowntree updated his metrics for his second York study in 1935, published in 1941, he had added many factors such as rental costs as a percentage of income, church activities, the popularity of certain radio programmes, housing subsidies, crime statistics, and a granular analysis of primary and secondary poverty lines.
The old and the new
As Jennifer Wallace has written on this blog, Knight’s book is a blend of old and new approaches. Indeed, some of his arguments are actually quite rooted in historical precedents, albeit not commonly known ones. The reason for this is that if we look at postwar commentators, who were working in the context of such an obviously massive, centralised, nationalised state, it is not always easy to find useful examples for comparison. Perhaps better examples can be found in the small-state historical periods like the 1930s, in which libertarian socialists such as G D H Cole grappled with these precise questions, or even that preceding the First World War, as the citation of Beatrice Webb’s 1909 Minority Report indicates.
The Rowntree example provides a superb case study in organising across party and public-private sector lines. Despite Rowntree’s place in the history of social democracy and the welfare state, Rowntree and his influential family circle were actually on the pro-business, small-state Liberal right (as John Child shows, they later reconciled themselves to a larger state). But the Rowntrees also formed a nexus between the Liberal Party, organised labour, the emergent Labour Party, progressive business owners, academic economists, and think tanks such as the Fabian Society. This type of historical consensus can be used as a precedent for Knight’s calls for consensus-building across traditional, and fast-evaporating, lines of party-political thinking.
Seeing the state
Knight goes further than just modifying the way we measure poverty. He also integrates into his analysis an important discussion about changing attitudes towards the British, and perhaps particularly English, state. The localism issue is bigger than the 2010-15 Coalition’s ‘Big Society’ or the 2011 localism act, and Knight plus other authors recognise this. The call to ‘Take Back Control’ is arguably to ‘Take Back Control’ from more than just Brussels: London is more devolved from Westminster than most of England is – and the English areas that have experienced the least devolution are often those that voted ‘Leave’ in the Brexit referendum two years ago.
“The call to ‘Take Back Control’ is arguably to ‘Take Back Control’ from more than just Brussels”
Several of the book’s reviewers such as Neal Lawson have enjoyed discussing the poverty measurement question as a microcosm of the structure of the 21st century British state and its policy delivery. It is fascinating to consider how devolved poverty alleviation would work – in effect, taking back control of, and from, centralised data. Would different areas use the same metrics? If not, would they be comparable at all? This might produce a kind of ‘poverty post code lottery’ but, as Knight points out, we must not be hostages to the ‘tyranny of perfection’: in this age of slippery political allegiances it is better to start with broad coalitions and general visions, and get positive things done, rather than debate basic principles at length and nothing positive happen after all.
Michael Weatherburn is a historian and Field Leader of Science, Culture and Society at Imperial College.
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