What is poverty? A quick primer

By Bernadette Meaden
February 27, 2014

What is poverty? Ask this question and surely the vast majority of people would reply ‘not having enough money’ or words to that effect.

But Iain Duncan Smith seems determined to try to change our understanding of this simple word and simple concept. For him, poverty is about everything but money, and can be solved by doing many things, but never by giving poor people more money. So it isn’t surprising that his ‘radical’ plan to tackle child poverty consists of a collection of measures, many of which are welcome, but none of which will substantially boost the incomes of poor families.

The Secretary of State’s whole approach has been built on myths which he and his supporters have done much to create, and which others have effectively demolished.

We are told work is the route out of poverty: but in-work poverty is now more common than out of work poverty. We are told addiction is a major factor in poverty, yet we know that only 1.7 per cent of claimants claim benefits because of addiction problems. We are told the poor do not manage their money well, when in fact they are usually preoccupied with budgeting.

The result of believing in these myths appears to create a mental block when it comes to giving poor people money, and an obsession with how they will spend it. It is no use raising benefits, believers say, because the money will be spent on drink and cigarettes.

As benefits come from ‘hardworking taxpayers’ nobody wishes to see them being misdirected or wasted. But rich individuals and organisations in receipt of much larger amounts of public money (bailed out bankers or farmers receiving subsidies for instance) do not have politicians and the media obsessing over their lifestyles. As @imajsaclaimant recently tweeted ‘I was asked this week how I could afford a computer if I'm unemployed. Erm, I wasn't always unemployed... it's not my profession’. A fellow jobseeker replied ‘same with wide screen tv. How can you afford that? Saved up when working 10-16 hr night shifts!’

Even the term child poverty, as with food poverty and fuel poverty, is something of a distraction from the true problem. Let’s be clear, child poverty is family poverty. Children are living in poverty because their parents are poor. There may be issues of child neglect, where the family doesn’t care for the child appropriately, but that is a separate issue and should be addressed as such.

The Secretary of State and his supporters focus a great deal on social problems such as child neglect and parental addiction, which certainly need to be dealt with. But to use the addiction problems of a minority as justification for suppressing the incomes of all parents on benefits seems unreasonable and unjust.

Mr Duncan Smith cites the persistence of child poverty as evidence that increasing benefits will not solve the problem of poverty. But the Council of Europe has declared that British benefits are ‘manifestly inadequate’. Presumably if they were to become adequate it would do a lot to lift many families out of poverty.

It has long been established that growing up in poverty affects a child’s mental and physical wellbeing, and even their intellectual capacities. But there is now evidence that not having enough money can also have a corrosive effect on the cognitive abilities of adults. For those living in financial security, this may be a contentious point which they will dispute, an excuse for bad decisions. Anybody who has lived with the constant worry of where the next meal will come from, or how to pay the gas bill, will identify with this immediately, the feeling of ‘not being able to think straight’. And this is not evidence that people are poor because they are less clever: in this research, when the financial pressure was removed, cognitive abilities returned to previous levels. So to sit in a privileged and financially secure position, and question the competence or character of people in poverty, as many wealthy politicians now do, is not just unkind or insensitive, it is perhaps ill-informed.

The Secretary of State’s measures address real problems and to that extent should be welcomed. But they do not tackle poverty: they create conditions in which some of the effects of poverty may be mitigated.

Social justice and the reduction of poverty can only be achieved by ensuring that people have a fairer share of the nation’s wealth, either through fair wages when they are employed, or adequate benefits when they need support. Proposals to deal with social problems like addiction or payday lending are all very welcome, but they do not address poverty, are not a substitute for doing so, and should not be advertised as such.


© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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