The obfuscation of poverty

By Bernadette Meaden
October 12, 2017

One of the most remarkable features of modern British politics is how, as the share of national wealth going to wages has declined, and the support offered by social security has been steadily eroded, poverty and what causes it has been simultaneously, and very conveniently, turned into a mystery. It’s as if, in the middle of a rainstorm, people with umbrellas began earnestly debating why the people without umbrellas were getting wet.

In the real world we know that poverty means not having enough money to pay the bills and live a decent life. We know that to solve this we need wealth to be shared more fairly.

Yet as wages fell, and austerity and welfare reforms began to bite, a growing number of people, very few of whom had much experience of life on a low income, began arguing that the causes of poverty were complex and multi-dimensional, less about economic injustice and more about personal failings.

People and organisations which promoted the very policies that were making poor people poorer, simultaneously promoted debate around the causes of poverty. This debate seemed designed to take us further and further away from the economic roots of poverty, and make it more about individual responsibility. This was quite an audacious move, but unfortunately it seems to have worked.

The debate around poverty and how to tackle it continues to grow, with increasing numbers of organisations and events focusing on it, making it ever more complicated and mysterious. We have now arrived at a situation where people who promoted benefit sanctions and Universal Credit, which will make many poor families poorer and take a large chunks of income away from severely disabled people, can muse thoughtfully about how to tackle poverty.

And almost none of these debates, with a few very honourable exceptions, will ever hear from anyone actually living in poverty. As Martin Johnston recently tweeted, “Talking about #genderjustice without women would be bonkers. How then can we meet about #poverty without those who daily live with it?”

Meanwhile, communities have responded to the growing hunger in their midst with generosity, and foodbanks have proliferated. But many who donate and volunteer at foodbanks also feel very ambivalent about them. We cannot stand by as people go hungry – but by feeding hungry people, are we enabling politicians to remove support, and masking the serious consequences of their policies? Without foodbanks, would the government still get away with leaving seriously ill people penniless?

The welfare reform agenda that has caused and is causing so much poverty in the UK took much of its inspiration from the USA. Because the USA was ahead of us in reducing or removing support from the poor, it is also ahead of us in responses to it. So if we worry about foodbanks becoming a permanent feature to replace a welfare state being deliberately dismantled, we need to look at what has happened in America.

A new book, Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups, signals the dangers that we could face. The book looks at how an ‘emergency food system’ which arose in response to job losses, recession, and the removal of welfare assistance was intended to be a stopgap measure, but became permanent.

As the book’s publishers explain, “From one perspective, anti-hunger leaders have been extraordinarily effective. Food charity is embedded in American civil society…But anti-hunger advocates are missing an essential element of the problem: economic inequality driven by low wages. Reliant on corporate donations of food and money, anti-hunger organizations have failed to hold business accountable for offshoring jobs, cutting benefits, exploiting workers and rural communities, and resisting wage increases. They have become part of a “hunger-industrial complex” that seems as self-perpetuating as the more famous military-industrial complex.”

America shows us what the future holds if we rely on charity to ameliorate poverty, without confronting the economic injustice which is creating it. The organisations which feed poor Americans never advocate for higher wages, for fear of offending their corporate donors, and the big companies whose labour practices have created poverty get credit, “tax, media, and otherwise – for supporting charities to address it.” As one reviewer of ‘Big Hunger’ said, “the good intention to end poverty has metastasised into an industry that keeps 50 million Americans hungry…If hunger is to be ended in America, the unholy coalitions that currently frustrate, ignore, and try to contain attempts for radical change will need to be blown apart.” 

Here in the UK we need to beware of such ‘unholy coalitions’ which can see a network of vested interests advocating or supporting policies which reduce the incomes of the poor, whilst theorising about poverty and finding foodbanks ‘uplifting’. Fortunately, charities like the Trussell Trust, which can be hamstrung by charity law, still manage to speak out , albeit rather diplomatically, when politicians completely misrepresent a situation. But there is a danger, particularly during election campaigns, that the restrictions of the Lobbying Act will make it impossible for the organisations which see the reality of poverty and hunger every day to speak truth to power. Which means we as individuals need to redouble our efforts.

We need to resist the way poverty has been obfuscated, and uphold the truth that it is overwhelmingly due to the unjust distribution of wealth. We need to refute the idea that suddenly, as vast wealth is siphoned off into tax havens, it has become impossible for a wealthy country to fund a social security system which guarantees dignified access to the necessities of life. At the moment the government is creating poverty, as a political choice. Different political choices could dramatically reduce it.

*Andrew Fisher, the author of Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance Between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups will be speaking in Manchester on 9 November. Admission is free, you can register to attend here 

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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

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