Monday, 14 July 2014

When tackling poverty, it's not just statistics

‘I want the opportunity to have a life – to thrive not just survive.’ Marie

Last week the Labour party argued for more rigorous monitoring of child poverty levels in the UK. The call was for the Office for Budgetary Responsibility to produce two yearly assessments, as it currently does with economic growth predictions. The logic being that greater public awareness of poverty statistics could lead to improved Government action on what is an increasing problem.

Certainly child poverty has been absent from George Osbourne’s last three budget speeches and independent analysts predict child poverty rates are set to rise significantly. One estimate of a 600,000 increase by 2015-16 is truly shocking and should make everyone take note.

The Coalition’s approach

The government’s defence is that its new welfare regime has been designed to encourage people back to work and support those unable to do so.

How it has been carried out, however, has been roundly criticised on numerous fronts. A report on sanctions this month from Citizens Advice Scotland, for example, documents some of its brutal shortcomings.

The Poverty Trap

Moreover, aside from the actual implementation, there seems a deeper structural flaw to the system. By removing the safety net, huge swathes of people are being pushed into poverty, without recognition of how once there they can be easily trapped. Many of those bearing the brunt of the cuts are already working full time, stuck on the minimum wage, or struggling in an elusive search for more hours to cover rising living costs.  

There appears no understanding that poverty traps people: once there your opportunities decrease significantly, you encounter damaging stigma, and not only is your income reduced but you are charged more for basic goods and services.

A return to the safety net?

The previous administration’s record of reducing child poverty by 800,000, from 3.4m to 2.6m, seems, at first glance and in our current climate, to be of notable achievement.

Further analysis, on the other hand, highlights that the policies of New Labour did not display a deep enough approach. Heavily reliant on tweaks such as increases in Child Tax Credit and Child Benefit, this method lowered levels of child poverty statistically. However, this was against a backdrop of a failure to dent income inequality, as calculated by the Gini coefficient.

It gave many low income families some much needed extra income, but its inability to alter the overall structure of power, or encourage people’s sense of agency to flourish within it, resulted in a lack of sustainable progress.

Rethinking the Welfare System: involving people directly

It is clear that we need a wider dialogue around welfare policies which halt and reverse the rising inequality which has gone largely unquestioned over the last thirty years.

Income transfers are required and the welfare system should provide a safety net to prevent individuals from falling into poverty. However, to merely stop there would be a failure to learn from our past mistakes.

We cannot expect to create a sustainable system to lift people out of poverty if we do not directly involve those whom the changes are meant to be helping. People living and experiencing poverty on a daily basis need to have control over how it is shaped. We need their voices to help guide us.

Alternative Approach

The Poverty Truth Commission is trying to create this. On Saturday 21st June, an audience of over 450 heard people with experience of poverty stand side by side with people in positions of power in Scotland. As well as hearing true stories of life on low incomes, those in attendance heard a vision for the future often ignored by the mainstream media. A vision of a fairer and more inclusive economy, geared towards the benefit of all in society, with universal and equal participation in decision making.

Challenges for us all

Since its inception in 2009, the Commission has been constantly and profoundly challenged by the testimonies it has heard from people living in poverty. In that spirit, it has offered a set of challenges for everyone across society, from politicians to the woman or man on the street.

Chief amongt them is this:

“We challenge politicians and civic leaders to stop talking about those in poverty and to start learning with them”

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