Rethinking Poverty: Towards the Webb Legacy
by Barry Knight
Purpose of this paper
This paper has two goals. The first is to learn from reactions to the publication of Rethinking Poverty given during a wide range of public meetings and in written reviews. The second is to develop a work programme to follow up the book taking account of what we have learned.
Reflecting these goals, the paper is divided into two parts. Part A focuses on what we have learned and Part B on what we will do next.
Part A: What we have learned
The main argument in the book is that, since our efforts to end poverty over the past 75 years have failed, we should rethink our approach. Rather than addressing poverty directly, we should develop the society we want and use the process to design poverty out. This approach follows a principle developed by Buckminster Fuller:
‘You never change something by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.’
An appetite for change
Reviews of the book demonstrate a hunger for this idea. Peter Hetherington, in a review article for Town and Country Planning, finds the arguments ‘compelling’, suggesting that the book ‘challenges preconceived ideas about the role and responsibility of government and the assumptions of both the political right and left’.
Daniel Washington, reviewing the book on the Amazon website, approves of the idea of ‘a new narrative’ in the light of the fact that ‘…the policy approaches that have been the hallmark of social policy in the U.K. since 1945 have failed’. Kieran Goddard, head of external affairs at the Association of Charitable Foundations, agrees that the ‘narrative around poverty is broken’. He suggests: ‘Rethinking Poverty deals in the politics of the possible, something that has become a lost art in mainstream discourse.’
Gerry Salole, chief executive of the European Foundation Centre, likes the ‘straightforward, no-nonsense remedies for changing the mindset with which we grapple with poverty’. Christopher Harris, former senior program officer at the Ford Foundation, suggests that the book ‘shows convincingly that efforts to address “poverty” have failed and that only by collectively envisaging the society that we all want – a positive frame – can we discover effective ways forward to more just and fair communities’. Similarly, Stephen Pittam, former secretary to the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, is convinced by the ‘strong and well-written analysis of why the anti-poverty narrative has failed’ and welcomes a book that wants to ‘open a discussion on values and principles rather than prescribe policy recommendations’.
Rosie Ferguson, chief executive of Gingerbread, says ‘the narrative in Rethinking Poverty resonates with what single parents tell us’. Jennifer Wallace, head of policy at the Carnegie UK Trust, suggests that ‘Knight’s call to action on agency and control has to be heeded’.
Philanthropy adviser Jon Edwards finds the arguments convincing and analogous to the failure of development strategies across the world:
‘Throwing money and log frames at the problem of poverty … makes very little progress because the processes reduce people’s dignity and impede their resourcefulness.’
‘Dignity should be at the heart of work to eradicate poverty – and that means investing in people, recognising the skills and resources they already have, developing these, building new assets, building confidence, empowering people to change things for themselves, working with others to do this and help build the society they want.’
Neal Lawson of Compass describes the book as a ‘big stepping stone to the society we want.’
Amid the general sense of approval, one reviewer stood against the central idea. Kate Green, MP for Stretford and Urmston and a former trustee of the Webb Memorial Trust, says ‘don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater’. She suggests that we go back to the ‘old solutions’, citing the progress of the Labour government between 1999 and 2011/12 when child poverty was reduced by one quarter, in contrast to the Conservative record between 1979 and 1997 when child poverty doubled. She suggests that the old solutions ‘redistribute resources from those with more to those who are poorer’. Only government has the fiscal levers and ‘when they use them effectively, we see falls in poverty’. Green argues that ‘rises in poverty come in years when investment isn’t maintained’.
This is a salutary reminder not to let the state off the hook. Other reviewers have stressed that, while we need to widen the range of actors in developing a good society, the state should still play a key role. Rosie Ferguson points out that Gingerbread is ‘one of many voices calling for the six-week delay before you can get your universal credit payment to be scrapped, to prevent single parent families being driven further into debt’. Stephen Pittam suggests that a ‘progressive taxation system and good universal public services … must surely be part of the better future that we hope is before us’. The Reverend Paul Nicolson suggests that ‘Rethinking Poverty greatly underestimates the importance of housing for a good life’ and calls for ‘a rethink of governmental culture at national and local level’.
Kate Green is right when she says that the last Labour government reduced poverty. At the same time, it is also true to say that by 2005 it had run out of steam and its policies had reached the limit of what they could do. It was precisely because the bottom quintile remained out of reach of even the most enlightened policies that the Trust began its work on poverty. The old policies have limits, as pointed out by Jennifer Wallace:
‘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.’
In addition, policies can paper over the fissures in society, but they do not get to the heart of the issue. Neal Lawson explains:
‘The person in the white coat isn’t going to end poverty. It is no longer a technical fix we seek. Yes, back-end tweaks like tax credits can stem the tide, at least for a bit, but the leap we must make is not technical – it is cultural, moral and political. Poverty will end when people who are poor take action to end it, when people who think they are rich realise that they can’t be, and when humanity either reaches a level of consciousness that allows us and the planet to survive – or doesn’t and we won’t.’
Bassma Kodmani, chief executive of the Arab Reform Initiative, makes a similar point:
‘Poverty will not be eradicated without a fundamental change in the way people relate to each other and the way those who hold power define and exercise it.’
She calls for:
‘… a model of leadership based on services framed in love.’
‘… isn’t love what we lack most in the social order that our governments have created for us? Who are we expecting to help us free ourselves from the trap of a world organised without love?’
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. As Albert Ruesga’s review points out – it is very easy to undo policies if they are not rooted in the culture of what is important to people:
‘In the UK, as in the US, hard-won protections for children and others in poverty can evaporate in a single election.’
Nothing will stick unless the people care enough, and, sadly, not enough people – at least in England – care about poverty for it to be an issue that binds us together. However, Jennifer Wallace points out that the ‘political narrative makes it possible to talk about poverty in Scotland’.
The lesson from Kate Green’s review is perhaps that we should pursue a strategy going forward based on, as Jennifer Wallace puts it, ‘blending the knowledge of the past with new and different ways of talking about and improving social progress’. That way, we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, but we also recognise that we need to develop new approaches if we are to get to the heart of things.
Perhaps the larger and more important question is how do we get people unified behind issues so that state policies are based on what they want, rather than what politicians think they want. The reason why politicians followed the Beveridge Plan for 30 years was that it was popular. How can we reproduce the conditions for building a new consensus that means that good policies will stick?
This is difficult. What is needed is a platform where people come together in solidarity to develop the conditions for positive change. This is an uphill task because feedback from public sessions in which Rethinking Poverty was discussed, including four political party conferences, suggests that many people are stuck in a rut when it comes to new ways of thinking. People find it difficult to move away from a deficit-based, problem-saturated approach to poverty to one in which they are themselves an asset in bringing about the changes that they want to see. This appears to be because people tend to feel that ‘I am only a person, what can I do about it?’ and conclude that building a good society is a policy issue that some other agency, most likely the government, needs to fix. Given the widespread passivity of the population towards issues such as poverty, the democratic imperative for government action is low. This leads to a widespread sense of powerlessness and a culture of blame. People find it hard to move from a negative mindset to a positive one in which everyone has a part to play in building the society we want. A key question is how to change mindsets.
There are some signs of positive change. Partly because of the fieldwork undertaken by Michael Orton for Rethinking Poverty, leading charities came together to make a joint submission in advance of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement in 2017. Moreover, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) has taken steps to improve the way practitioners talk about the term ‘poverty’ to avoid some of the negative associations of the term.
This is a start but not enough. As Caroline Hartnell points out in her account of a meeting launching JRF’s work:
‘The big question is whether being careful about how you talk about poverty will be enough to produce sustained shifts in how people think, especially about a subject like benefits that is so mired in hostility and blame … And what happens when JRF and other anti-poverty campaigners are no longer controlling the poverty discourse? When it’s the Daily Mail and the other right-wing tabloids peddling their view of lazy benefits scroungers robbing hard-working folk?
What the ‘poverty lobby’ does best is to monitor trends in poverty and advocate for policies to counter the worst effects of poverty. It is not well suited to a creative examination of the forces that drive wider society and to develop imaginative approaches to the economy, the environment, democracy and wider societal processes. Partly, this reflects the availability of funding. As Rosie Ferguson from Gingerbread puts it:
‘It is easier for charities to play into a negative narrative of portraying beneficiaries as “poverty victims” to meet short-term fundraising goals than to go against the grain and champion the strengths and rights of those on lower incomes to flourish and thrive. The tide is turning on this, but if we are to genuinely shift the conversation then investment is needed in the development of leadership skills and in the time and space for leaders from all sectors and communities to dream together and plan together.’
A key task is to find such a forum to develop what Stephen Pittam calls, quoting Gandhi, a ‘constructive programme’. Pittam points out that Gandhi believed that protest could only take us so far and that a substantive set of reform proposals is needed too.
Such a ‘constructive programme’ needs to have a new vision. The five principles articulated in Rethinking Poverty are a useful starting point, but these too are insufficient on their own. As Lisa Jordan puts it in her review, we need to:
‘… use our moral imagination to find authentic engagement, purpose and connection with each other, to fulfil the needs both of the poor and of the wealthy, and to create a new cloth of society. One that is not torn by Brexit, Trump, extremism, violence, destitution, despair, need and fear.’
Our moral imagination is a key vehicle for developing the society we want, but it also needs organisation. How do we begin to think about doing that?
The constructive programme
Rethinking Poverty stayed away from the question about how to organise a constructive programme to deliver the society we want – arguing that top-down attempts at building a good society almost always end in failure. However, at party conferences, senior politicians commonly asked ‘how do I implement the findings of the book?’ It is now perhaps time to offer some reflections on this question. Reviewers of the book have good suggestions that are worth developing.
Kieran Goddard suggests a developmental process:
‘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.’
Goddard goes on to frame how the issue might be tackled, suggesting the development of scenarios based on what we want and what we don’t want; models based on contrasting asset strategies and deficit strategies; the development of criteria for success based on increases in equality; and a re-evaluation of human worth that is separate from our role as economic actors.
Lisa Jordan likes this framing, though points out that many young people are also looking to markets for solutions to complex social problems. She points out that young activists are:
‘… building clean, green, fair products; generating solutions with a supply chain mindset; changing the rules for investors; challenging the financial rules; building social bond markets; building markets at the bottom of the pyramid as a replacement for charity to address the needs of the poor; and changing the definitions of corporations. The energy now residing in impact hubs, social enterprises, impact investing, mobile cash, B Corps and the social capital dialogue in general is energy that pursues through action the goal of tying capital to social productivity.’
Gerry Salole introduces an additional perspective. He stresses the importance of the ‘incredible rise in recent years of the worldwide community philanthropy ecosystem’, which has the potential to shift power to where it is needed. The #ShiftThePower campaign is a potent vehicle for organising the constructive programme, made up as it is of many hundreds of small people-led organisations across the world. As Jon Edwards puts it in his review: ‘…those with power need to shift it. Let’s get shifting.’
Government has an important role to play in shifting the power too. As Jennifer Wallace draws on the considerable body of work undertaken by the Carnegie UK Trust on the Enabling State to suggest: ‘… 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.’
Philanthropy is important too. As Roger van der Weerd, chief executive of the Adessium Foundation points out in his review: ‘Foundations can play a role in supporting innovative approaches to break open the system.’ Bodille Arensen from the Erasmus Centre in the Netherlands makes a similar point: ‘Philanthropists could take more risks and inspire innovative ways of working.’
Through this short review of suggestions made in reviews of the book, we can see that there is no shortage of good ideas for developing a new social order. A question arises about how to weld together these disparate forces. Christopher Harris sees promise in
‘… the collection of groups initially forged in identity politics – groups focused on issues such as racial violence, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, immigrant justice and refugee support – that have “crossed lines” to create new coalitions and work together on common concerns and broader justice.’
Responding directly to this comment, Lisa Jordan agrees:
‘The key here is linking up across lines to build consciousness around “justice for us” as “justice for all”. As an example, if Americans could end state-sanctioned violence against young black men, the entire society would benefit.’
Summarizing these contributions, what appears to be needed is a social movement that seeks, in Kieran Goddard’s words, ‘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’.
Finding a platform
The task before us, as Bassma Kodmani puts it (quoting General de Gaulle), is a ‘vaste programme’. It is always difficult to develop a venture that pits itself against the prevailing norms in our society because it is difficult for people or organisations to find the time or resources to threaten the status quo. Such activity usually takes place on the margins of society, requiring long-term persistence to amend prevailing power structures.
Rethinking Poverty suggests that the origins for such a movement must start from civil society, and develop organically as a network that provides a platform for people and organisations to come together for people, in Jennifer Wallace’s words, ‘to think and dream’.
Based on research among civil society groups conducted for the Webb Memorial Trust, Katy Goldstraw and John Diamond reported in their 2017 publication Civil Society and a Good Society: Conclusions from our collaborative conversations that there is considerable appetite for people to work on new models of a good society. They found three competing models. One is based on the idea of reconstituting the welfare state; a second suggests using the resources of civil society to fill the gaps in the declining welfare state. A third is altogether different: to build a ‘vision of a society based on strong human values of public love, care, tolerance, respect and kindness’. In this vision, Goldstraw and Diamond suggest, ‘we need to reconsider our understanding of society as beyond that of nation state, recognising the globalised heterogeneous world in which we sit’.
Moreover, Goldstraw and Diamond suggest that this is not pie in the sky and can be realized through active collaborations:
‘Conversations with Fairness Commissions and civil society groups reveal that collaboration and supportive relationships, webs of social ties, human capital, trust and kindness need to be developed within and between organisations.’
In such work the unit of analysis would not be, as is often the case, the single organisation, but instead the entire ecosystem of human development. As David Bonbright, chief executive of Keystone Accountability, explains:
‘Whatever their deepest assumptions may be, organisations need to continually excavate them and subject them to formal scrutiny and revision by their constituents. Doing this formally and systematically allows all constituents – staff, board, service users, peers et al – to shift their unit of analysis from the organisation to the ecosystem in which the organisation operates.’
The research leading to Rethinking Poverty developed a group of organisations that have begun to work together to think beyond the narrow confines of their institutional goals towards the wider ecosystem. As Neal Lawson says in his review:
‘The book is not a collection of words and pages so much as a collection of groups and ideas that the Webb Memorial Trust has been pulling together for the last few years – a network legacy for when they finally shut the Trust’s doors, enabling many more to open.’
Building on these relationships, it would be possible for people and organisations to come together to fire their moral imaginations, to co-design programmes to usher in a good society, and to find ways of reaching out to others who are also on this journey to join them in the task. The group would need to operate from an independent platform and be inclusive of different views, and porous to influence as it imagines better futures. The platform would be entirely separate from any political party and take a radical view of the society we want across a range of issues from the economy and the environment, through to community development and democracy.
Some of the former Webb Memorial Trust partners are beginning to think this way. To give one example, Compass is in the process of developing a ‘common platform’ to bring people together in an open and inclusive way. There are other initiatives that could come together to build a broad-based movement for change. This could take the form of a number of interlinked platforms. How this would be organised will take some figuring out.
Part B: What we will do next
The next steps in the programme to follow up Rethinking Poverty will be to support the emergence of a platform or platforms from within civil society to develop a broad-based programme to deliver a society that people want and that will affect how governments and other actors address poverty.
The key word here is ‘support’. As an educational charity, we can bring resources to the table (for example, expertise of various kinds, consultancy, research, surveys, analysis, database, publishing and finance), but we have no place in spearheading social change directly. Our role should be interstitial, stimulating activity but not controlling it.
Our programme will have three dimensions:
- Create a narrative on a good society
- Connect promising approaches
- Convene key people and initiatives
Create a narrative
Starting with the narrative, we will conduct a series of empirical studies on what works to develop a good society. A framing question is provided by Albert Ruesga in his review:
‘Good societies – at least better ones – are in plain sight. Other countries have done and are doing a better job of providing a social safety net, welcoming immigrants, reducing gun violence, conducting fairer elections, reducing health care costs, etc. How do we build the political will to follow their example?’
We will build up a bank of stories and cases studies about how people have risen above a deficit and problem-laden approach to develop creative asset-based solutions. Some of these examples have already featured in Rethinking Poverty. Neal Lawson comments:
‘If the Town and Country Planning Association could create a 21st century garden city movement; if the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) could build foundational economies, where the existing mostly public infrastructure is used to buy local and invest local; if the voices and views of children and their experience of poverty could be heard and acted on, then we would be better equipped to make a world without poverty.’
In fact some of this is already happening. In November 2011 Preston hit rock bottom after the collapse of a scheme for a giant shopping mall, ‘one of many losers in Britain’s political economy’. Then local councillor Matthew Brown teamed up with Neil McInroy of CLES to persuade six of the public bodies on their doorstep to commit to spending locally wherever possible. Their success is described by Guardian columnist Aditya Chakrabortty.
This research programme will have international dimensions, since, as reviewers of the book have suggested, the issues raised by Rethinking Poverty have resonance in many countries, including those in the global south, and yet the evidence base is currently drawn from a narrow geography. It will be important to learn from places where the power has shifted. A key question here is ‘What would it look like in practice if the #ShiftThePower campaign were to work?’
Connect promising approaches
The second strand is to connect promising approaches. The research described in the previous section will locate examples, which, if scaled up, promise to develop a good society without poverty. We will work to disseminate these and connect them together in a new configuration, and to join up UK experience with international work.
The object will be to locate and study unusual examples that work well and deliver a good society, uncover ways to amplify such positive deviance, and investigate how such innovations can be connected to build a new understanding of what might be possible. The methodology will be based on the work of Roberto Unger (2007), who stresses the importance of small-scale innovations to foreshadow the possibilities of larger-scale transformations in society. This will lead to a sense of a new model of relational power developed by early feminist writer Mary Parker Follett (1995). This connects directly with the #ShiftThePower campaign which seeks to build a civil society that sees itself as part of an ecosystem rather than a collection of separate organisations. Such an approach will build what political scientists call ‘the demand side of governance’, in which citizens feel that their lives matter in public affairs and that they have a means to affect the decisions that govern their lives.
Convene key people and initiatives
We will convene key people and initiatives. Our first two approaches are essentially based on research. The third takes us towards development – using the research to act and plan with others. We will bring key people together to consider what can be learned about building a good society from the first two sets of activities. This would be based on our relationships with grantees and other organisations developed over time though joint collaborations. The objective would be to develop a critical mass of people and organisations who want to see power differently and to develop a joined-up approach to social change in the way suggested in Chapter 6 of Rethinking Poverty. Our primary role will be to support organisations in their agenda and join up what others do, rather than take initiatives of our own.
Meeting the last challenge
In her critique of Rethinking Poverty, Kate Green set out a standard for the kind of book that she would want to read. This would be a ‘manual for how we collectively end poverty in Britain for ever’. It would
‘… include agency as an integral part of the design of a radical programme of social change, while ensuring that nothing lets government off the hook in fulfilling its responsibility, and using its unique capacity for redistribution, regulation and investment.’
Such a book would:
‘…stimulate and help to create sustainable policy solutions.’
That is the challenge that a follow-up to Rethinking Poverty should aim to meet. It will also look wider to include an international dimension to take account of the views of other critics.
What do you think?
Please respond to this paper and give us feedback. If you’d like to write a blog in response, please email Caroline Hartnell at firstname.lastname@example.org. And if the contents interest you, we would like you to engage with us in developing the programme further.
Barry Knight is the author of Rethinking Poverty: What makes a good society? and former director of the Webb Memorial Trust.