Why Fight Poverty?

by Julia Unwin

On opening a book entitled Why Fight Poverty?, you might expect an opening chapter explaining the concept of poverty, how it is measured in the UK, how this has been challenged, and what successive governments have done (with more or less success) to tackle poverty in recent years.

But in this short missive Julia Unwin, the Chief Executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, does well not to waste pages on rehearsing the pros and cons of relative poverty measurement and instead jumps straight to the central issue – does poverty exist in the UK? And if it does, does it matter?

In response, Julia makes a compelling argument not just for why we must tackle poverty – exploring the hard costs of the waste of life and talent that poverty can create – but also, importantly, the how. The bold claim that poverty isn’t inevitable, and that we can reduce it, is backed up with a suggested multi-pronged approach to tackling poverty, drawing on the theory of social change and the gains made in the US and UK in the first Blair government.

At a mere 76 pages there is little room for a comprehensive examination of these suggestions, but the fact they are presented at all raises the encouraging possibility that an evidence-based and effective poverty strategy is feasible. To make it so, the book calls for an end to politicised debates about where poverty ‘comes from’, arguing that competing claims that (on the left hand) poverty is a structural phenomenon and (on the right) it is a matter of individual agency have undermined public support – and therefore credible efforts – to tackle poverty.

Why Fight Poverty?’s central purpose, therefore, is not to lay out a detailed poverty strategy. Rather, it is to explain how perverse and often conflicting public attitudes towards poverty – a feeling that poverty is inevitable, too hard to tackle, or even desirable – have stifled support for efforts to tackle it.

Unwin unpicks each prejudice in turn, examining the root causes of our fear, mistrust, even disgust regarding the poor, and exposing our conflicting feelings towards disability, motherhood and ethnic minority groups. While this is set against the backdrop of the very live debate of welfare reform and the current popular narrative of ‘scroungers’, it recognises that these attitudes, and our discomfort with and yet acceptance of poverty in society, has long established roots.

It reads like the work of a enquiring mind, illustrating arguments with an eclectic mix of up-to-date facts (often from the canon of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s own research), historical reflection and cross-disciplinary insight. So we are referred variously to Beatrice Webb and A Girl Called Jack, The Grapes of Wrath and Shameless, the concept of story telling and its role in developing empathy, and the psychology of shame. The result is a narrative that is both accessible to an interested non-expert and offers up something new for the more seasoned policy wonk.

The book does not present a utopian vision, nor attempt a neat solution. It admits tackling poverty is a long, difficult and expensive endeavour, and argues this is possible only with consensus and significant commitment from the public that such an effort is needed and justified. This book, and its central attempt to address the titular question,is a small but important step in moving towards that point.

Claudia Wood is Chief Executive of Demos. She is on Twitter @WoodClaudia.

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