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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John McDonnell praises New Labour as he enters conciliatory mode

The shadow chancellor sought to build a bridge between the past and the present by crediting the 1997 government. 

Ever since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader, John McDonnell has been on a mission to reinvent himself as a kinder, gentler politician. He hasn’t always succeeded. In July, the shadow chancellor declared of rebel MPs: “As plotters they were fucking useless”.

But in his Labour conference speech, Corbyn’s closest ally was firmly in conciliatory mode. McDonnell thanked Owen Smith for his part in defeating the Personal Independence Payment cuts. He praised Caroline Flint, with whom he has clashed, for her amendment to the financial bill on corporate tax transparency. Jonathan Reynolds, who will soon return to the frontbench, was credited for the “patriots pay their taxes” campaign (the latter two not mentioned in the original text).

McDonnell’s ecunmenicism didn’t end here. The 1997 Labour government, against which he and Corbyn so often defined themselves, was praised for its introduction of the minimum wage (though McDonnell couldn’t quite bring himself to mention Tony Blair). Promising a “real Living Wage” of around £10 per hour, the shadow chancellor sought to build a bridge between the past and the present. Though he couldn’t resist adding some red water as he closed: “In this party you no longer have to whisper it, it's called socialism. Solidarity!”

As a rebuke to those who accuse him of seeking power in the party, not the country, McDonnell spoke relentlessly of what the next Labour “government” would do. He promised a £250bn National Investment Bank, a “Right to Own” for employees, the repeal of the Trade Union Act and declared himself “interested” in the potential of a Universal Basic Income. It was a decidedly wonkish speech, free of the attack lines and jokes that others serve up.

One of the more striking passages was on McDonnell’s personal story (a recurring feature of Labour speeches since Sadiq Khan’s mayoral victory). “I was born in the city [Liverpool], not far from here,” he recalled. “My dad was a Liverpool docker and my mum was a cleaner who then served behind the counter at British Homes Stores for 30 years. I was part of the 1960's generation.  We lived in what sociological studies have described as some of the worst housing conditions that exist within this country. We just called it home.”

In his peroration, he declared: “In the birthplace of John Lennon, it falls to us to inspire people to imagine.” Most Labour MPs believe that a government led by Corbyn and McDonnell will remain just that: imaginary. “You may say I'm a dreamer. But I'm not the only one,” the shadow chancellor could have countered. With his praise for New Labour, he began the work of forging his party’s own brotherhood of man.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.