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30 May 2007

Is poverty relative?

We pitch Civitas's David Green against the New Policy Institute's Guy Palmer to discuss just what we

By David Green

The number of people living in relative poverty in the UK is rising. But does this really matter if everyone’s getting richer – just some faster than others? Directors of two opposing think-tanks – the New Policy Institute’s Guy Palmer and Civitas’s David Green – debate how we define poverty

Dear Guy,

‘Relative poverty’ might be accepted by politicians on the left and right these days, but that’s a worrying thing. The concept is wielded by authoritarians with a command-and-control approach. They have repeatedly redefined poverty to allow an ever-increasing number of people to be identified as the class requiring political action on their behalf: first it was physical efficiency; then the line was the benefit level; then a percentage of average or median income, and then it became ‘exclusion’ from the dominant lifestyle. At each step the intention was to exploit the sympathy that the term ‘poverty’ evokes.

But worse than that, egalitarianism is a shallow ideal. Egalitarian socialism has been treated as if it were the doctrine of idealists who hoped for a better world. But where is the idealism in the egalitarian vision of economic growth combined with the equalization of consumption? As Bertrand de Jouvenel remarked in the Ethics of Redistribution, nothing quite so trivial has ever been made into a social ideal. What is to be held against egalitarians is not that they are utopian, but that they completely fail to be so.

In fact, the choice between relative poverty and absolute poverty is a bogus dilemma. I believe there’s a third option : the ‘independence’ tradition. This hopes everyone will be self-supporting and therefore capable of making an independent contribution to the good of all. It goes beyond the ‘relief’ tradition, which aims only to relieve hardship by providing cash (or equivalent) support. Advocates of independence are not content merely to relieve hardship, but aim to create conditions in which people can achieve the best of which they are capable – not to create the conditions for them by political action, but to create the possibility of human accomplishment. The aim of life is not to enjoy as many satisfactions as possible whilst expending the least possible effort, but to reach for the heights of achievement within society.

Yours, David

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Dear David,

What a strange mixture of fantasy, wild assertion and paranoia! Take your last paragraph: I actually agree with most of it and, in particular, I am also not content “merely to relieve hardship” but also “aim to create conditions in which people can achieve the best of which they are capable”. But relieving hardship and helping people to thrive are both objectives which require us to be concerned about poverty not to be indifferent towards it. And do you really believe that lone parents, where poverty is most prevalent, “aim to enjoy as many satisfactions as possible whilst expending the least possible effort”?

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Or take your first paragraph (your middle paragraph is not even worth responding to): complete nonsense from beginning to end. Do you really believe that there are would-be dictators hidden away who have 100-year long plans to control society through a series of re-definitions of the word ‘poverty’? The one bit that I do agree with is that the concept of relative poverty is accepted right across the political spectrum.

The reason why this is so is because politicians of all hues are concerned about the cohesiveness of society. They – like me – believe that there are basic standards of living below which no one should fall and that these standards should rise as society becomes richer. As Peter Townsend put it in his groundbreaking work on the subject, poverty is when someone’s “resources are so seriously below those commanded by the average individual or family that they are, in effect, excluded from ordinary living patterns, customs and activities”.

In conclusion, I am clear about my agenda: there are basic standards of living below which no one should fall and these standards should rise as society becomes richer. I think you should come clean about yours: do you believe there are no depths below which people should fall? Do you believe there should be a welfare state or that Beveridge and Attlee were fundamentally wrong when they established it? And what about more modern developments, like the minimum wage?

Best wishes to you

Dear Guy,

Are the arguments of classical liberals really so unfamiliar to you that you can only resort to false insinuations that their supporters don’t care at all about the poor? You were even reduced to the simplistic ploy of claiming that I was attacking lone parents. I did not mention lone parenthood, but in any event many lone mothers have been deserted by the father, in which case it is the absent parent who may be open to criticism and certainly not the parent struggling to raise a child alone.

The argument is not about whether or not we should prevent people from falling below an agreed standard at all, it is about how best to do so without undermining personal independence and encouraging welfare dependency. A minimum wage has a part to play.

In future, why not try cutting back on the high moral dudgeon? A more reasoned exchange might be possible.

Dear David,

So your comment about people who “aim to enjoy as many satisfactions as possible whilst expending the least possible effort” was a random one liner rather than a comment about people in poverty.

You say that the issue is about how to help the poor without undermining personal independence and encouraging welfare dependency. But you do not give any evidence that this is currently the case nor any suggestions about what should be changed if it is. The reality is that – excepting the special cases of lone parents, the sick & disabled and carers – people are now not eligible for any out-of-work benefits unless they are actively seeking a job. As a result, excepting these special cases, there are virtually no long-term claimants of out-of-work benefits. And, at £59.15 a week, Jobseeker’s Allowance for a single person has been frozen in real terms for many years, falling ever further behind earnings. It is precisely because of unsubstantiated and generalised comments about ‘welfare dependency’ that some of the public believe that our welfare system is overly-generous whereas in fact it is much meaner than most other developed countries.

The question that we were both asked to address was “does relative poverty matter?”. You say that the argument is not about whether we should prevent people from falling below an agreed standard but about how. So, we both agree that there should be such standards and the only thing left to discuss is how they should be defined. For the reasons discussed in my first response, I think that they should be defined in relative terms because relative poverty does matter. I remain unclear about your position.

Dear Guy,

You appear to deny the existence of welfare dependency on any scale, but the government has a target to reduce the number of incapacity benefit claimants by about a million and to reduce the number of lone parents not in employment. I suppose you must simply disagree.

I have been trying to break away from a narrow dispute about the definition of poverty because deeper issues are at stake. Moreover, if we prevent people from falling below an agreed national minimum, it is inevitable that every few years the line will have to be redrawn to reflect the standards of the day. However, there is a lot to be gained from keeping a measure constant for at least a generation so that we can tell how well we are doing in lifting the living standards of the least well off members of society.

If poverty is defined as the ratio between the top ten per cent and the bottom ten per cent, then it is possible for the gap to widen whilst people in the bottom ten per cent are materially much better off. If compressing the ratio is the aim of government, then it can’t be accomplished without large-scale use of state powers of compulsion to determine lifestyles and personal choices, something that a liberal ought to be against. Whether the ratio between the top and bottom is 10:1 or 100:1 should not concern the government, so long as the poorest people enjoy an acceptable standard of life that allows them to make the most of their talents.

Dear David,

Once again, you attribute views to me that I did not say and do not hold. I agree that there are many lone parents and disabled people who are currently are not in paid work. Many of them also say that they would like to work and I support any initiatives to help them do so.

In your second contribution, you effectively said that there should be an agreed standard below which no one should fall. In your latest contribution, however, you seem to be taking a different line, saying first that it is ‘inevitable’ that any such line would have to rise over time (and – implicitly – saying that such a line should therefore not exist) but in the very next sentence suggesting that there should be a such a line but that it should not rise over time.

Finally, as you must surely know, no one defines poverty as the ratio between the poorest and the richest. Rather, as I said earlier, I, along with politicians across the political spectrum, believe that poverty is about avoiding people being in a position where their “resources are so seriously below those commanded by the average individual or family that they are, in effect, excluded from ordinary living patterns, customs and activities”.

In conclusion, I remain unclear about who or what you are railing against.