Stephen Crossley, Kayleigh Garthwaite, and Ruth Patrick argue that the different ‘types’ of poverty that have emerged in recent years may have the effect of diverting attention away from structural and systemic issues that need to be addressed. They introduce a new project which aims to encourage more critical discussion about the implications of this increased fragmentation of poverty.
In the not so distant past, there appeared to be a remarkable consensus around the need to tackle relative poverty in the UK. Whilst Leader of the Opposition, David Cameron said in 2006 that he wanted the ‘message to go out loud and clear, the Conservative Party recognises, will measure and will act on relative poverty’. The Child Poverty Act, which received Royal Assent in 2010, progressed through Parliament with cross-party support, and included a ’headline’ measure of ‘relative child poverty’. The cross-party concern about relative poverty was, however, short-lived, and superficial, at best.
In 2010, the newly formed Coalition government embarked upon a programme of austerity which relied heavily upon the ‘ideological re-working’ of austerity. The Coalition promised ‘life-changing policies that will help families to lift themselves out of poverty’, which drew heavily on the ‘pathways to poverty’ approach advocated by the ‘independent’ think tank, the Centre for Social Justice, established by the former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith. The ‘new approach’ was supported by a consultation in 2012 to find ‘better measures’ of child poverty which would weaken and potentially side-line the income-based indicators in Child Poverty Act. The Work and Welfare Reform Act 2016 saw large swathes of the Child Poverty Act rescinded, with the targets for ‘eradicating’ child poverty effectively abolished. The name of the Act was even retrospectively changed to the Life Chances Act. Whilst child poverty statistics would continue to be collected and published by the government, there was no longer an obligation to report them to Parliament.
Nevertheless, debates about poverty have increased in recent years. Period poverty, clothing poverty, food poverty, bed poverty, pet poverty, and funeral poverty (amongst other poverty ‘types’) are terms that are becoming increasingly normalised. Campaigns to encourage us to donate food and sanitary products for those unable to afford them are present in the majority of supermarkets, in workplaces, universities, and even at football grounds. A growing focus on the emergence and problem of different ‘poverties’ by media and campaigning organisations has occurred at the same time as the UK government has attempted to marginalise discussions of poverty, particularly child poverty, and as austerity continues to elicit ‘mean spirited’ and ‘punitive’ policies.
Raising awareness of people going without basic essentials such as sanitary products (and subsequent efforts provide these to those who need them) can assist people living in poverty temporarily, but ultimately, it is likely people will continue to face the chronic and multiple realities of poverty in the longer term because the underlying causes remain unaddressed. As charitable, fragmentary provision increases across diverse poverty types, there is a parallel risk that this leads to a retreat from recognising the necessity of providing money to alleviate poverty. Where services and goods replace income transfers, there is the inevitable linked danger that individuals experiencing poverty have reduced scope to choose how to spend their limited income.
Our intention is not to discredit the work that is being done to address these issues; after all, there is a real and growing need for the support being offered through charitable provision. However, a focus on the symptoms of poverty may not only conceal wider issues of inequality and injustice, but can also contribute to and reinforce hierarchies of deservingness and entrench the stigma of poverty. It is well documented, for example, that visiting a food bank is a source of stigma and shame, while the conditions of entitlement attached to these (and other) forms of emergency support can create further layers of conditionality with which people must comply, and which then sit alongside state-imposed welfare conditionality.
In our working paper, we argue for a revived focus on poverty as a lack of resources, rather than focusing on a lack of specific items, such as food, clothes, a suitable bed, or sanitary products. This is particularly relevant at a time when governments are proposing a ‘new approach’ to tackling child poverty, and when think-tanks and campaigners are urging us to ‘rethink poverty’ and arguing it is time to ‘tell a new story’ about poverty in the UK – one which involves ‘toning down the politics’ – or using a ‘new poverty measure’ as outlined by the Social Metrics Commission.
We would like to encourage more critical discussion about the implications of the increased fragmentation of poverty, as part of a wider exploration of policymakers, and stakeholders talk about poverty – is there a right or wrong way to do this? Who decides what’s right or wrong? Should we all be singing from the same hymn sheet, or is it critical reflection that we need? These questions would all merit further discussion, and we hope our working paper (and linked project) will help promote and enable debates about the changing ways we problematise and address poverty in the UK. This has undergone rapid, and in some ways unprecedented change in the UK context and the consequences of this needs to be more fully understood.
Stephen Crossley is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Social Work, Education and Community Wellbeing at Northumbria University.
Kayleigh Garthwaite is a Birmingham Fellow in the Department of Social Policy, Sociology and Criminology at the University of Birmingham.
Ruth Patrick is Lecturer in Social Policy & Social Work at the University of York.
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