Monday, 10 February 2014

Poverty, morality and politics

In the outline of its Anti-Poverty Strategy Programme, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation states: “We believe that people of different political backgrounds and perspectives want to understand and reduce poverty, and think there is potential to identify consensus on how we do that”.  One manifestation of this was their request to 25 “thinkers across much of the political spectrum” to write about “a compelling and positive vision of a low poverty future and – if authors want to do so – the routes by which we might get there”.

As Julia Unwin said in her Foreword to the collection of 25 essays (published as a special supplement to Prospect magazine):  “A fresh political consensus on how to achieve a low-poverty UK is needed, and while we seek to build it through our work, we also recognise the need to understand different political traditions and current perspectives on poverty”.

I wrote one of these essays, focusing on what a ‘low poverty future’ would mean for disabled people, and when the essays were published I read them in the hope of finding Julia Unwin’s “fresh political consensus”. 

There are certainly some common themes running through the essays.  Most of us argue that poverty isn’t just about low income, with economist Diane Coyle pointing out that it is hard for those who are not poor to understand fully the experience of social exclusion.  Insecurity, isolation, a lack of participation and of autonomy, are all important aspects of being poor and, for example, Harry Burns quotes Jimmy Reid’s speech about alienation: “The feelings of despair and hopelessness that pervade people who feel with justification that they have no real say in shaping or determining their own destinies” – words spoken in 1971 but which resonate today.

Yet as I read through the essays, I realised that they reflect a fundamental divide which stands in the way of the kind of consensus that JRF was hoping for.

Contributors such as AC Grayling and Rowan Williams take an explicitly moral stand on poverty but in fact assumptions about what is ‘good’ can be seen in all of the contributions, some more obvious than others. However, there are differences in whose morality is the focus of attention.  For example, AC Grayling focuses on the morality of those who are not poor to do what is in their power to alleviate poverty.  In contrast, for contributors such as Roger Scruton the primary focus is on what ‘the poor’ should be doing, while for Kieron O’Hara ‘our’ responsibility is limited to leaving “people alone to make their own decisions about how to earn money and to provide an infrastructure to support their decisions where necessary”.

This contrasting emphasis is also reflected in different perspectives on what are the possibilities for change.  Rowan Williams starts from the assumption that “there is no necessity about poverty” and that “what kind of society we inhabit and what provision we make around disadvantage is our choice, not the outworking of some impersonal law, whether of nature or of the market.” 

On the other hand, Christopher Snowdon’s statement that “A universal minimum income of the size implied by the JRF research is quite unaffordable…” is a contradiction of Rowan Williams’ starting point. Throughout the essays it is clear there is a dividing line between those who, like Snowdon, are concerned with what ‘the economy’ (by which he means companies) can afford and what ‘our society’ can afford in terms of the impact of poverty and inequality on social cohesion.

Some contributors put forward visions of a cohesive society, with assumptions about common humanity and argue that too much inequality is bad for all of us.  In contrast, others would follow Snowdon who sees “the war on inequality” as “a war on capitalism and growth”, with Roger Scruton arguing that, in any case, inequality isn’t a bad thing.

Many of the essays assume that human beings have great potential to improve their lives, given the right circumstances and opportunities. However, there is a dividing line between those who focus more on individual agency than on socio-economic circumstances.  For some, recognition of limits to which individuals can protect themselves against poverty or pull themselves out of it means that solutions have to be found at a societal level.   Neal Lawson writes: “… we believe that those who suffer from sheer brute bad luck, who, through no fault of their own, were born less healthy, strong, fast or intelligent than others, need extra help to ensure their equality alongside their fellow human beings.  When misfortune strikes – ill health, loss of work and so on – then society needs to intervene to help people.  We really are all in it together”.

David Goodhart, on the other hand, believes that ‘character’ – formed during childhood – is the ultimate protector from poverty. His approach to poverty challenges JRF’s statement that poverty is “an experience that virtually anyone can go through at some point in their lives”, saying “I can confidently predict that my friend from the council estate [who is now a “successful professional”] will never be poor again, thanks in part to his mother providing sufficient ‘love and boundaries’ when he was young”.

For me this collection of essays has therefore failed to reveal a political consensus.  Instead it has reflected a profound division that lies behind all the debates about what causes poverty and how (and whether) to tackle it.

When I started writing my own contribution, about what a ‘low poverty future’ would look like for disabled people, I was increasingly reminded of my mother telling me as a child to “Do as you would be done by”, the golden rule which lies at the heart of most of the world’s religions and ethical traditions. 

The current political debates about ‘welfare’ divide us from each other: the widely used term (by both Coalition and Labour politicians) of ‘hard working families’ inevitably creates an ‘us’ and ‘them’. ‘Welfare’ is something that others rely on. We can jettison the golden rule of “Do as you would be done by” because we do not put ourselves in others’ shoes – unless of course they offer us inspiring stories of ‘overcoming all odds’, ’pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps’ to become a ‘hard working family’.

We are creating a society where injury, ill health, frailty in old age or the birth of a disabled child means a lonely struggle for survival; where the poverty which follows unemployment, family break-up or other catastrophes is accompanied by the blame and stigma of individual failure. As Suzanne Moore says, the morality underpinning collective responsibility for each other has been removed by the argument that this collective responsibility (i.e. the welfare state) has created “moral disaster” by encouraging “individual weakness” and that it is these individual failings which must therefore be the focus of policy.

So instead of our starting point being what would we want for ourselves, the starting point is about how can we get these ‘other people’ to behave differently.  Instead of challenging whether we can afford an economy which is relentlessly driving down wages, where jobs lack security and decent working conditions, we obsess about what levels of public expenditure ‘we’ can afford.

As a summary of the JRF programme of research on the future UK labour market and poverty concluded, for many people paid work is not a route out of poverty.  Yet the debates waged by our politicians assume that it is, instead of recognising that the problem is the economy, not the individuals who struggle to survive.  Moreover, those debates have written out of existence people who are too ill to work.  Current policies treat as completely invisible people with significant levels of physical/sensory/cognitive impairment, and/or mental health difficulties, while family members who care for them face £1bn cuts in financial support by 2018.  

People living in poverty, who are most affected by social and economic policy, have no role in policy-making.  An example of how this could change is the Leeds Poverty Truth initiative, launched on 7th February which “will be led by people with first-hand experience of poverty, working with the city’s civic and business leaders to not just change what we do about poverty in the short term – but to permanently change how we tackle poverty in our city”.

Morality and morals are words not often heard in the context of politics.  But perhaps we should make clearer the morality of those who assume a right to decide what is best for those ‘others’ with whom they are so reluctant to identify.