Political theories of poverty vary across the political spectrum, with those on the right tending to individualise social problems more generally, and those on the left tending to socialise them. Very different policy implications stem from each perspective.
Since the Thatcher era, the New Right have developed a distinctive behaviourist approach to poverty, founded on the idea that poor people are poor because they lack certain qualities and traits.
In 2013, Iain Duncan Smith worked on developing “better measures of child poverty” to provide a “more accurate reflection of the reality of child poverty.” According to the Conservatives, poverty isn’t caused by a lack of income.
The Coalition conducted a weighted and biased consultation at the time that did little more than provide a Conservative ideological framework in the form of leading questions, to catch carefully calculated, led and subliminally shaped public responses.
Iain Duncan Smith has indicated he will repeal the 2010 Child Poverty Act, which committed the government to a target of eradicating child poverty in the UK by 2020. He has dispensed with the current relative definition of poverty (anyone in a household beneath 60% of median income), abandoned the targets and introduced a new (although rather unclear) definition: the child poverty target is to be replaced with a new duty to report levels of educational attainment, “worklessness” and addiction, rather than relative material deprivation and disadvantage.
Duncan Smith argues that the measures set originally by Tony Blair are a “poor measure of poverty”, and he claims that families can fall or go above the relative poverty line for reasons that have little to do with their material wealth.
Using the Centre for Social Justice’s 2012 report Rethinking Child Poverty, (set up by none other than Iain Duncan Smith in 2004) to support his ideological perspective, Duncan Smith’s account of UK poverty is defined by bad parenting, by alcohol dependency and drug-addiction.
There is of course very little focus on accounts of parents who are poor because they are unemployed or in low-paid work. Or because of government policies that are directed at rewarding wealthy people and punishing poor people. (See also: We are raising more money for the rich.) Duncan Smith said:
“We know in households with unstable relationships, where debt and addiction destabilise families, where parents lack employment skills, where children just aren’t ready to start school, these children don’t have the same chances in life as others. It is self evident.”
Of course it’s also “self-evident” that debt, addiction and unstable relationships happen to wealthy people as well, so as far as causal explanations of poverty go, this one certainly lacks credibility and coherence.
Furthermore, I propose that a lack of opportunities and life chances arise from the cumulative effects of discriminatory economic and social structures and policies. Iain Duncan Smith went on to say:
“They cannot break out of that cycle of disadvantage. We are currently developing these measures right now – family breakdown, problem debt and drug and alcohol dependency – and we will report each year on these life chances as well.”
The Conservatives are claiming that poverty arises because of the “faulty” lifestyle choices of people with personal deficits and aim to reconstruct the identities of poor people via psychopolitical interventions, but it is only through a wholesale commitment to eliminating poverty by addressing unemployment, underemployment, job insecurity, low paid work, inadequate welfare support and institutionalised inequalities that any meaningful social progress can be made.
Over the last five years, the UK has become the most unequal country in Europe, on the basis of income distribution and wages. If that increase in inequality arose because of individual failings, as the Conservatives are claiming, why have those personal failings only become apparent so suddenly within the past five years? The Child Poverty Action Group voiced concerns :
“The statement isn’t about strengthening efforts to end child poverty, but about burying the failure of the government’s child poverty approach. And with more cuts coming down the line, child poverty is set to rise.”
The Bell Swerve
Iain Duncan Smith draws on a framework of ideas that was shaped to a large extent by the white male supremacist musings of Charles Murray, the controversial ultra-conservative American sociologist that exhumed social Darwinism and gave the bones of it originally to Bush and Thatcher to re-cast.
Murray’s New Right culture of poverty theory popularised notions that poverty is caused by an individual’s personal deficits and character flaws; that the poor have earned their position in society; the poor deserve to be poor because this is a reflection of their lack of qualities and level of abilities. Murray’s very controversial work The Bell Curve was a novel of racist pseudoscience and manipulated, misleading statistics which he used to propose that social inequality is caused by the genetic inferiority of the black and Latino communities, women and the poor.
According to Murray, disadvantaged groups are disadvantaged because, on average, they cannot compete with white men, who are intellectually, psychologically and morally superior. Murray advocates the total elimination of the welfare state, arguing that public policy cannot overcome the “innate deficiencies” that cause unequal social and educational outcomes.
Many critics, including myself, regard Murray as a white supremacist, a nationalist that has a long history of advocating discredited ideas that are rooted in eugenics. Nonetheless, Murray has had a significant influence on Conservative thinking about welfare in particular, both here in the UK and across the Atlantic.
“The majority of children living in poverty have at least one parent who is working. Employment is important but if wages do not rise substantially in relation to living costs it will not provide a route out of poverty alone. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has today published a report stating that families with children working full-time on the National Minimum Wage are now 15% short of the Minimum Income Standard that people believe offers an acceptable standard of living. Today’s announcement will effectively confine to history any figures on the millions of children being raised in families who experience in-work poverty denying them necessities such as adequate food, clothing and heating.”
Last year, the Children’s Commissioner said that the increasing inequality which has resulted from the cuts, and in particular, the welfare reforms, means that Britain is now in breach of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which protects children from the adverse effects of government economic measures.
Austerity cuts are disproportionately targeted at the poorest. It’s particularly shameful that absolute poverty has returned to Britain since 2010, given that we are the 5th wealthiest nation in the world. That indicates clearly just how much inequality has increased under the Conservatives since 2010.
Poverty arises because of the behaviour of the powerful and wealthy, not the poor.