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Poverty should not always be with us

July 11, 2017


In the last month I have taken up a new responsibility as a Trustee of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. It’s an organisation I have long admired and I am delighted to have the chance of being part of its mission to tackle UK poverty.

The Joseph Rowntree organisations have been working in this field for well over a century. What we mean by poverty in 2017 is, in some ways, very different from when those organisations started their work in the first decade of the 20th century.  However despite undoubted progress on some fronts, poverty remains a scourge on the face of British society which continues to call for action.

I have three drivers for wanting to focus on this issues. The first is personal.  I am very lucky to have enjoyed many advantages in life, in my upbringing, my education and the options which have been open to me in my professional life. It is not so long, however, since, particularly my father’s family in South Wales, experienced poverty in the wake of mass unemployment in the 1930s. The narrative of that experience was crucial in forming my values as a young person and in setting a belief that a key goal of social policy should be to eliminate both the material and psychological distress engendered by poverty.

The second driver is a reflection from 30 years working in health and care is to what a large extent poverty drives not just material disadvantage but a wider range of other life outcomes: poorer health, poorer education, poorer work, poorer housing and poorer participation.  Poverty stacks the odds against individuals and communities across a range of issues.  Tackling poverty is key to addressing so many other social problems.

The final motivator comes from my particular professional experience in the ten years I have worked in the field of mental health. There is a strong relationship of cause and effect between mental ill health and poverty.  Poverty and social disadvantage are for many a consequence of mental ill health in large part due to the impact mental illness has on a person’s chance of getting or keeping a job.    At the same time the chances of developing a mental illness are much higher amongst higher amongst people and families in poverty with the psychological impact of poverty being a significant risk factor for mental health problems.

The shape of poverty does not stay still. Some laudable progress has been made in recent decades in reducing child and pensioner poverty but, sadly, other issues have come to the fore.  A number of challenges stand out.

There is a troubling concern about the growth of the working poor and the inability of large number of people, despite the introduction of minimum and living wages, to sustain a decent quality of life while in work. There are many issues behind this, some relate to issues around costs, such as housing, as well as to problems with income.  These problems have got significantly worse with the restraints on wage growth since the last Recession and are further exacerbated by the increase in inflationary pressures since Brexit.

It is also a great worry to see a growth in the concentration of poverty in families affected by disability. While much progress has been made in promoting the better participation of people with disabilities in the labour market there is clearly still a major issue for individuals themselves and for carers.  Some of the issues are clearly reinforcing.  If you are already in poverty and have a disability or a caring responsibility there is a double level of disadvantage.  Benefit reform has been particularly punitive on people with disabilities.

Tackling poverty has, in my view, three requirements. The first is to make poverty visible.  JRF has done an excellent job over the years in marshalling the evidence and data on the nature and causes of poverty in the UK.  As well as the facts there is a need for human stories, what poverty means on a day to day basis for the people who live with it.  Those stories have been so crucial for changing opinion in other causes such as attitudes on mental health.

The second is to build and develop the evidence base for what works and supporting those who wish to use that evidence base in practice.  Action is needed at many different levels but as in many areas of public policy there seems to be a particular opportunity to look at interventions which are place based and which bring together the contribution of different agencies.

The final ingredient is helping to create the political will for change. Poverty should be something which is seen by public and politicians as intolerable in our society.  Sadly. however, it is often too easily tolerated, in part because it is invisible, in part because it is convenient to blame people in poverty themselves for the circumstances they find themselves in, in part because it feels too difficult to do anything about it.   None of these are a good enough excuse.  Campaigning for change needs to be a matter of head and heart.  Research and evidence create the case for change and promote solutions.  However time and time again it is an emotional reaction to an event such as Grenfell Tower, or to the sight of people sleeping on the street or forced to use food banks which creates the real momentum for change.  Participation is also crucial.  People in poverty, for a variety of reasons, are some of the most excluded from the democratic process.  Politics is a numbers game and as we’ve seen very clearly with the youth vote, democratic participation can have a positive effect on political agendas.

Back to my South Welsh roots. In the 1930s The Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII, visited the South Welsh valleys and saw at first hand the impact of poverty and mass unemployment.  He was moved by what he saw and famously commented “something must be done.”  We need the same revelation in our leaders in respect of poverty in 2017.  We can all be part of making the case.



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