Monday, 10 November 2014

Is what we call poverty, what you call poverty?

The following blog is a personal reflection from Dr Peter Kenway of the New Policy Institute who attended the second conversation of the Poverty Truth Commission at the end of October.

From a distance, other people’s lives are our numbers. In a world made up of statistics, what matters is to be measured. Something called poverty is measured; so it matters. But is what we call poverty what you call poverty? Is what we say matters what you say matters? Not just at any time, but now?

I have been using statistics to make arguments about poverty and social exclusion in the UK since around the time when Tony Blair first promised to abolish child poverty within a generation. Centred on low income but ranging widely, we measure everything from poor schooling and substandard housing to ill-health and a social security system whose principal purpose is now punishment.

In truth, work like this always involves plenty of conversations. Statistics and the how they are used require choices. The conversations which affect these choices are almost always with others of a similar background, trained in the same ways, in government, universities and the large voluntary sector charities.

So a PTC Conversation is not unique but is still unusual. The high point for me of last Friday’s Conversation was the reading of a testimony, one paragraph a person as the story travelled from hand to hand round the circle, the life story of one of the new commissioners from early teenage years until now.

This story made a great impression on all who heard it, MSPs among them. The story itself, a hard struggle punctuated with moments of triumph, was memorable enough. But the manner of its telling added to it. Relieved of the task of reading ourselves, the pace set by the speaker, we are free to hear and not just listen, free to feel and not just think.

At the time and afterwards, I drew my own conclusions. But these Conversations are part of the PTC deciding itself what its new priorities are to be. I am eager to hear. But as an outsider I won’t use this platform to say what I think they should be.

But I can say this. The value of the PTC’s testimonies doesn’t just lie in what they point to: most of the big changes are quite clear in the statistical world. But how these changes feel, why they matter – we can guess as fellow human beings but only testimony can really say. How and why, not just what.

That such testimonies are rare is a compliment, a compliment to their power.

Peter Kenway
New Policy Institute

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