Why the left and the right are getting it wrong on poverty

Demos's new research shows that poverty can be both an economic and social phenomenon.

When the government announced that it was again reviewing how it measured child poverty, some on the left decried the move as "moving the goalposts". Iain Duncan Smith didn’t help matters by launching the consultation with a speech which seemed to suggest he had already made up his mind. The focus on family breakdown, in particular, raised hackles – in essence, poverty would be measured by how long a child had been raised in a two-parent family. While single parenthood can mean a lower income, to suggest a child should be deemed in poverty on this basis alone betrays a particular ideological outlook.

This is a shame, because it has meant that many have dismissed the consultation out of hand, as yet another cynical attempt by government to move the focus of the poverty strategy away from tackling deprivation and towards stigmatising single parents and troubled families. But the fact is, a more holistic measure of poverty – which takes causal factors and symptoms into account – will give us a better understanding of poverty, and help politicians tackle it more effectively.

Both the government and the opposition risk falling down an ideological rabbit-hole now that the definition of poverty is back on the agenda. On the right, the Victorian tendency to explain poverty as a social problem, experienced by troubled families, and brought on by their own failings and weaknesses, will no doubt lead to a critically limited range of policy responses. But this will be no more limited than the response from the left, whose fixed position that low income is the central feature of poverty has in the past led to a one-dimensional, technocratic approach – memorably described as "poverty plus a pound", where poverty is "solved" by redistributing until enough people are over the invisible poverty line.

Our research published today seeks to take the politics out of poverty and use evidence to point to the best policy response. By applying 20 separate indicators associated with poverty to the population below the poverty line, we keep income central to our understanding – but also recognise that the lived experience of poverty is never just about one’s bank balance, but a complex interaction of social issues, spanning one’s social networks, health, education, and housing.

The result is 15 distinct types of poverty across three cohorts – households with children, those without, and pensioners. Each type of poverty is made up of a unique combination of the different indicators, creating a sense of the "lived experience" of each type.

What was clear was that while some of the poverty types were experiencing the kind of poverty the government has set out to solve – unemployment, debt, single parenthood and poor health – many were not. The most prevalent type of child poverty (applying to about a third of families) was defined by long work histories in poorly paid jobs or recent redundancy from well paid jobs, a strong work ethic, home ownership and good education.

Our research disproves the assumptions held by those on both ends of the political spectrum – and concludes that poverty can be both an economic and social phenomenon, depending on the household in question. Perhaps this smacks of sitting on the fence – an excuse to do nothing. But this is far from the case. In fact, the findings represent a highly inconvenient truth. The truth is that there is no magic bullet to ending poverty – neither a crusade against troubled families, nor a predistribution and living wage strategy will be effective in isolation.

An effective poverty strategy will not, in fact, serve either party’s particular ideological standpoint. Indeed, our findings suggest there is no such thing as an effective poverty strategy, but that each type requires its own strategy, each one relying on a coordinated response from different combinations of agencies – good, old-fashioned joined-up government.

Those on the front-line working with poor families might be wondering what’s new here. They already know that a poorly skilled young mother struggling to put food on the table needs different help to a recently redundant, middle aged divorcee coping with a vastly reduced income.

But the Demos work has, for the first time, articulated and quantified this difference – and in so doing, shows exactly where existing narrower approaches are falling short. With the government’s consultation, we have an unprecedented opportunity to harness the evidence to guide our policy response – but politicians on both sides must first learn that a sincere attempt to tackle poverty is an issue beyond politics.

Claudia Wood is deputy director of Demos

Two young boys play football in a run down street in the Govan area of Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.

Claudia Wood is deputy director of Demos.

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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds.                                                                                                                

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change