Stop trying to fix poor people – fix poverty

By Bernadette Meaden
October 18, 2016

The news that the Troubled Families scheme failed to have any significant impact will not come as a surprise to critics of the government's approach towards our poorest and most disadvantaged neighbours. The policy, like almost every other policy affecting poor people, was based on the misguided belief that poverty is largely a result of personal failings, and that for most people all that is required to improve their situation is a bit more effort and self-discipline.

Accordingly, every welfare reform policy has contained an element of blame and punishment. The intention was to change the behaviour of people in poverty, whilst simultaneously cutting their incomes and deepening their poverty. Benefit sanctions, the bedroom tax, and ESA cuts that would ‘incentivise’ people unfit to work to go to work anyway – there has been a constant effort to ‘fix’ the poor, held responsible for their own poverty. But poor people don't need to be fixed. They just need more money.

It takes only a moment’s thought to realise how grossly unfair and irrational the approach is. Take the government’s own most recent figures on deprivation in England. We see that, "Middlesbrough, Knowsley, Kingston upon Hull, Liverpool and Manchester are the local authorities with the highest proportions of neighbourhoods among the most deprived in England". Think about that for a moment. Liverpool and Manchester were once amongst the richest cities in the world, all these places were crucial during the Industrial Revolution. The populations of those cities and towns played a huge part in laying the foundations of our modern economy. Yet they are now suffering deprivation, whilst people in other parts of the UK live more comfortable lives. Can anyone seriously suggest that this is due to the personal failings of the people of the North? Their deprivation is obviously a result of big structural economic factors, not character defects.

And yet, rising levels of employment and a falling claimant count is cited as evidence of the success of the ‘fix the poor’ approach. But poverty hasn’t been fixed, it has been increased. Many people have simply traded their poverty on benefits for in-work poverty. They now earn their poverty.

Universal Credit is very big on fixing the poor. Through the euphemistically named In Work Progression,  low paid workers will be expected to improve their earnings – on pain of sanction. The original claim made for Universal Credit, that it will "make work pay" has been completely undermined by cuts. But the other less-publicised claim, that it will provide employers with a more flexible workforce,  seems to be only too successful, as claimants can be required to take a second zero-hours job to make up their earnings. This provides employers with a workforce under constant pressure to accept whatever they are offered in terms of pay and conditions.

So whilst the government expresses concern for those who are struggling, all its actions serve only to increase poverty. Many cuts to support are still in the pipeline, with their impact yet to be felt.  Child poverty is set to see the biggest increase in a generation, and as Moussa Haddad  of Child Poverty Action Group explains, "the entirety of the 3.2 per cent increase in absolute child poverty is accounted for by planned tax and benefit reforms, all of which is concentrated among families with three or more children. A third of that impact is down to the two-child limit in tax credits and universal credit." He continues, "over a decade, the income of families towards the bottom has actually gone down – something without precedent in modern times."

So whatever the government says, what it is actually doing is steadily and deliberately increasing poverty. This cannot be acceptable in a rich country, and two campaigns launched this week aim to mobilise public opinion against it. The Cradle to Grave  campaign intends to fund posters throughout the UK, with the slogan, ‘Stop the Demolition of the Welfare State’. On Twitter look for #Cradle2Grave  

End Hunger UK  is supported by many organisations including Church Action on Poverty and Child Poverty Action Group. It simply states, "Everybody should have access to good food. Nobody should go to bed hungry." It asks people to host a Big Conversation event, which can be a forum or an informal gathering, to "help build a groundswell of pressure on politicians and government so that they take the issue of hunger in the UK seriously." There is also a social media campaign which you can take part in, #EndHungerUK

‘The Gospel takes away our right forever, to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor’ -- Dorothy Day

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© 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

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.