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17 April 2014updated 07 Sep 2021 10:28am

37-and-a-half things we learned from Barry Night’s Rethinking Poverty

How do we, as a society, end poverty.

By David Barker

Rethinking Poverty, written by social scientist Barry Knight, tackles one issue: how do we as a society end poverty. Rather than framing poverty as a problem to be solved, Knight argues that we must first begin by defining the kind of society we want. The book calls for a fresh social policy, which addresses the continuing austerity and under-resourced organisations within the context of lacking social security.

The Webb Memorial Trust carried out research, which involved academics, community activists, leading organisations, children and adults in poverty, as well as conducting surveys that included over 12,000 people. Key, emerging themes included; community, power, and agency. And amidst all of this, there are continuing reminders of the fractures within our society and how they allow poverty to grow.

1) Post-Brexit, and “the wholesale rejection of the views of the establishment”, actual experts are reticent to believe in their own influence

Which kind of makes this whole book pointless, but there we go.

2) Fact-based campaigns reinforce stereotypes and prejudices 

Expressing outrage towards injustice, as campaigners commonly do, yields little results or enthusiasm for a solution – it just describes a problem. If anything, constant repetition of a problem leads people to believe it’s so big they can’t play any part in a solution. And this is all fundamentally fruitless because large proportions of people blame the poor for their poverty anyway.

3) People don’t know what poverty means

It’s an elastic term: it could mean relative poverty or absolute poverty, and even within that academics disagree on exact definitions.

As a result, people are divided between those who think only absolute poverty matters, and those who think relative poverty is important too (page 10)

4) Around 80 per cent of people think the government should help the unemployed

But we’re all completely divided on what that help should be. According to a YouGov survey, 32.6per cent say, “enough money to avoid starvation and homelessness but nothing more”, and 30.6per cent say, “enough money to have what most people consider a normal life”.

5) “Feelings, not facts, hold sway in thinking about poverty”

People tend to see poverty as either: 1) within the control of the individual, 2) beyond their control, or 3) an inevitable part of society. But regardless of this they don’t feel they themselves can help. It’s, respectively, up to the state, the poor, or nothing can be done. And most people will blame people either blame the government or the people in poverty, rather than the system.

6) “Some 3.6 million children grow up below the poverty line, a figure that is expected to rise to 4.2 million by the year 2020”


7) On average, people estimate 41per cent of the entire welfare budget goes on benefits to the unemployed

7.5) (The true figure is 3per cent)

8) Confirmation bias protects ignorance

Every focus group found that, when confronted with a fact that conflicted with their opinion, people tended to dismiss it as “what the government would say” or “newspaper talk”. This is why drawing attention to the bad news about poverty and expecting people to be affected by it is pointless.

9) An obsession with ‘cheats’ in the benefits system fuelled a backlash against the welfare system and wider welfare state and post-war consensus 

This didn’t happen in isolation – pressure groups have spent decades using this resentment to encourage people to think tax cuts are the answer, and that the welfare state makes people lazy and dependent on the state.

10) This set the stage for Thatcher to sweep to power for a decade

…And the rich-poor divide has widened ever since.

11) But New Labour managed to decrease poverty while it stagnated elsewhere in the world

However, Labour fell short of achieving far more because of the governments fears of antagonising an electorate increasingly hostile to welfare reforms, and New Labour’s tendency to pursue social police by stealth.

12) In 2018, after years of austerity, there is no consensus about what to do about poverty

This is as true amongst the political class, voters, and experts.

13) Most people, mistakenly, feel we have made little progress

Even though Britain is a richer, healthier, better educated, and more tolerant country than it was 70 years ago, the constant tendency for newspapers to lead with bad news skews our collective sense of how well we are doing as a society.

14) 92 per cent of people think job security is important or very important

But only 65 per cent feel they have this in their job.

15) The lack of consensus and bridge building is compounded by our behaviour on Twitter

The frequent storms, spats, and insults are making it impossible to communicate properly and reach the compromises on which public life depends. And at the same time, we tend to only follow those with a similar world view, so our own views are rarely challenged and we more seldom speak to those we need to compromise with.

16) Poverty is increasing most in working families and those who privately rent

I think we’ve all felt this, but hard evidence confirms the massive disproportion in rising poverty amongst those who work but don’t own their home.

17) The effect on children is staggering

One in six of the children in poverty surveyed had contemplated suicide. Most frequently, poverty instils feelings of shame and embarrassment about their home. This leads to social isolation as they can’t afford day trips or activities, for example, and don’t want friends to see where they live.

18) The impact on children is deeply embedded

For every year a child spends in poverty, the chance they will fall behind their classmates increases. They are less likely to receive support from their parents because their parents’ poverty means they commonly suffer from ‘anxiety, depression, and irritability.’ It isn’t surprising then that children who grow up in poverty are more likely to live in poverty as adults.

19) This doesn’t just affect individuals

In terms of the strain on public services and the public sector, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has estimated the overall costs of poverty at £78 billion per annum.

20) People on low incomes with low education, are most likely to be in poverty, and were also most likely to support Brexit

Underpinning how Remain’s economic message fell flat.

21) There are four conditions for the transformation we need

They are, “severe economic shock; the intellectual collapse of the existing model; a loss of faith by the public in the existing system; and a ready-made and credible alternative”. We have already had the first three. Only the fourth is needed.

22) Society has moved from being concerned with production to consumption

We used to see ourselves as searching for deeper meaning in a stable word, but we now see ourselves as in search for multiple but fleeting social experiences, living a “fast life in a kaleidoscope of relationships”.

23) Consumerism has filled the void created by a crisis of meaning in our lives

This allowed for celebrities to transform their fame into product brands, which the public consumes, only to then emulate celebrities through selfies: projecting the illusion that life is ‘all about me’. The price of this is a deep insecurity and unhappiness for many throughout society, undermining the solidarity on which society depends.

24) No matter how groups and trusts attempted to articulate the principles of a good society, it always came with the underlying concept of “community”

This was common in focus groups for high income, medium income, low income, and benefit recipients.

25) The people most likely to see those in poverty as scroungers, and lack any empathy towards them, tend to feel insecure and vulnerable in their own lives

They are projecting their negative emotions onto others, stereotyping and scapegoating.

26) “While people desire modest prosperity, there is no evidence they want to be rich or value a society where wealth is the emblem of success”

Once basic material wants have been satisfied, extra income adds very little to happiness. People want enough to pay their way and have the occasional night out and holiday, and not lay awake at night consumed by survival anxiety.

27) Trickle down economics still don’t work

Those at the top have seen their wealth grow, and the continuing technological advancements that lead to machines replacing people diminish the likelihood of well-paying work for the majority. And yet many people assume social benefit as an inevitable part of an economic boom.

28) The left and the right can’t agree on how to tackle poverty

This means incoming governments will ping pong ideas and undo each other’s work too quickly for us to see any long term effects

29) One thing every group seems united on is wanting security, so this may be the best place to start

30) Employers respond better when you use terms like “fairness” and “staff wellbeing”

For them to pay a living wage shows leadership, that they are different from the low-wage sector, that it will encourage their workforce to stay, and will improve their image.

31) The energy and talent unleashed by ridding ourselves of poverty is unimaginable

This is simply because so many people, potentially great scientists, writers, entrepreneurs, and so on are withering away in scarcity, making the true cost to our society unfathomable.

32) While basic income ideas lack mass support or finessing, some kind of mass benefit reform will become inevitable as it becomes clearer that well-paid work will no longer support the mass of the people

33) If there’s a second EU referendum, Remain can’t win if just campaigns on the economy

People’s desire for security, fairness, and community (rather than economic success or riches) may well explain why Remain’s message failed to convince such large swathes of the population.

34) It’s time to Take Back Control

Empowering local authorities and co-operative businesses would help to raise living standards without the cost of living, and, perhaps more importantly in this context, foster a greater sense of community.

35) The supply of social housing will not fully address housing poverty, leaving tighter regulation of the rented sector essential

Overcrowding, cold, damp, and high energy costs are common problems, creating a strong case for a register of landlords, together with annual inspections and greater powers of intervention for local authorities.

36) The baby boomer generation run our country at the expense of their children

If the political, economic, and cultural leaders (of which baby boomers are grossly overrepresented), then young people of today will be taxed more, work longer hours for less money, live in degraded environments and have lower social mobility – all to pay for their parents’ quality of life.


37) All hope seems to lie with younger people

The vast research involving young people, particularly those from lower incomes, displayed an incredible capacity to come up with ideas beyond current failed narratives. The younger generations appear to be taking the individual gamble of investing in their education en masse. “Far from the accusations of laziness and apathy, these young people are incredibly ambitious and optimistic about their own capacities”.

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