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Poverty, inequality and a flourishing democracy
By Graham Whitham

As we discussed in the last newsletter, the Grenfell Tower disaster starkly illustrated the tragic consequences of people in power not listening or responding to the concerns of people living on low incomes. What created the conditions that allowed the voices of people with very serious concerns to be ignored and what does this mean for our democracy and the ability of policy to respond to high levels of poverty and inequality?

Notwithstanding the recent increase in turnout among certain groups at the recent General Election, in the UK there is a strong social and age related gradient to voting patterns. The better off someone is, the more likely they are to vote. The same goes when it comes to age, older people are more likely to put their cross in a box when polling day comes around. The consequence is disproportionate concern by political parties for the interests of particular groups of the population because those groups are more likely to vote, and limited concern for the interests of those groups that vote in smaller numbers.

This creates a vicious cycle whereby parts of society feel neglected by political parties and withdraw further from the voting booth, as parties increasingly hone their message to those groups that turnout. If political parties don’t appear to be offering you anything or don’t speak to your concerns, why bother voting?

The effect is to warp political debate so that the importance of issues that affect only a small proportion of the population, say for example taxes on high earners or high levels of wealth, have a heightened and exaggerated place within political debates. The consequence appears to be, in the UK at least, rising inequality as policy responds to the perceived needs of the better off (limiting tax rises, creating the conditions for greater concentration of wealth etc).

Discussed in detail in political theory is the idea that democracy should be self-correcting when it comes to economic inequality. Or put it another way, in a democracy public opinion should act as a break on ever increasing levels of inequality. Increases in inequality should coincide with increases in support for redistribution, as the public demand policies that ensure wealth is spread more evenly.

That isn’t what has happened in the UK, or in a number of other liberal democracies in recent decades. Inequality has continued to rise and support for redistribution has declined. Whilst variations in turnout dependent on age and social class are central to this, there’s more to it than political parties simply responding to the interests of groups more likely to vote.

How the public feel about poverty, inequality and social mobility is also part of the story. Whilst support for reducing certain types of poverty, such as pensioner poverty, may remain, entrenched high levels of economic inequality can become an accepted norm. Most people may agree that inequality is too high, but may not agree that policies that redistribute wealth are a ‘price worth paying’ or, perhaps more importantly, don’t believe those benefiting from redistributive policies are ‘deserving beneficiaries’. If you believe poverty is a result of personal rather than structural failures, and that all wealth held by the rich is deserved and hard earned, you’re less likely to support redistributive policies that help drive down poverty and inequality.

Graham Whitham, Director of GMPA and author of reports for GM Poverty Action

Graham Whitham

Similarly, even if you’re on a low or middle income, if you believe redistribution of wealth limits social mobility and may hinder your ability to increase your income in the future, you’re less likely to support policies that drive down poverty and inequality than someone who recognises that high levels of inequality can bring social mobility to a grinding halt.

Democracy needs to be reinvigorated if we’re to address these challenges. The voices of people in poverty must be heard and their concerns responded to. People on all incomes need to believe that the issues that matter to them are being addressed, and that political parties have something to offer them and are interested in meeting their needs. Public policy debates must be better informed so that people have the evidence and knowledge they need to understand how best policy can address major challenges, including poverty and inequality.

 

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Poverty Exposes People to Greater Risks
by Tom Skinner

Poverty isn’t just struggling to get by in the present. It also means living so close to the edge that a single misfortune could spell disaster in the immediate future.

Sometimes this can mean homelessness, with factors such as relationship breakdown, a change in benefits, or a redundancy causing people to lose their homes. Because this happens to people one-by-one, the causes are often relatively hidden from the public eye.

On occasion this fragility of life hits home in a much more visible and shocking way. The fire in Grenfell Tower is one of the greatest tragedies to have hit the UK since World War II. The loss of life, the way people died, and the loss of hundreds of people’s homes is overwhelming.

What’s more, it looks like much of the devastation could have been avoided, and that this kind of avoidable tragedy disproportionately affects people in poverty.

Had building regulations been tightened up as experts had advised, had those regulations been well enforced, had fire-fighters been better resourced and positioned, had the local authority taken a more hands-on approach to social housing, or had the management company ensured better safety standards themselves, we might well have been looking at a much smaller-scale disaster, or even a near miss. People in poverty are evidently more vulnerable to leaders’ mistakes or negligence than those who are better off.

It is of course difficult to tell from early media reports, and we do not wish to jump to conclusions about where the blame lies. We do however know that many residents had been warning of the dangers, and felt they had not been listened to. We hope that the government inquiry and other investigations will be transparent, rigorous and unflinching, giving the victims a central role in the proceedings while dealing with the most urgent matters as quickly as possible.

Here in Greater Manchester authorities are moving quickly to ensure that buildings are in better, safer conditions than Grenfell Tower was, and cladding is being  removed from some towers. While cladding understandably dominates the headlines, fire safety particularly in high-rise, low-cost and social housing requires attention to many other factors such as alarms, sprinklers, exit routes and inspections, while fire services must be adequately resourced for prevention work as well as emergency responses. There have been indications that local authorities will be reimbursed for any building work carried out to minimise fire risks in tower blocks, but the terms of this offer should be made clearer, as councils who quite rightly are acting quickly, are doing so in the dark as to the ultimate financial implications.

Tom Skinner editorial article for GM Poverty Action

Tom Skinner

Beyond that we must ensure that all public services serve people in poverty – not just adequately within the law, but generously and in such a way that ensures as much safety as is realistically possible. We must change our culture and our practises, as well as policy, so when vulnerable people raise concerns, they are heard – in fact they must be encouraged to play an active part in civil life, and spaces created for this to happen. We must ensure that all homes, and other places where people are vulnerable, are safely maintained. Ultimately we must work to minimise poverty and its effects – the tragic event in London highlights just how essential this is.

 

 

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A Human Development Report for Greater Manchester
By Graham Whitham (GMPA) & Jill Rubery (Alliance Manchester Business School)

Today the University of Manchester is publishing a Human Development Report for Greater Manchester. The report itself mirrors the approach taken by the United Nations by measuring human development in Greater Manchester and all its constituent local authorities along three dimensions of health, knowledge and standards of living.

This approach is truly people centred as it recognises the significance for everyone’s life course of key life transitions and the importance of support being available to enable people to make good transitions from one life stage to the next. By taking this approach, the report sheds light on the variety of problems and challenges the combined authority will face in tackling poverty and inequality and in ensuring everybody reaches their potential.

The report reveals wide inequalities, not just between our city region and the national average or ‘benchmark’  (that is the average development scores for England) but also among the local authorities and by life stage. Greater Manchester as a whole is below the national benchmark for all of the indices. Across the ten boroughs, three local authorities (Trafford, Stockport and Bury) are frequently above the national benchmark and five others experience particularly low scores, at less than 60% of the national benchmark. Out of nine indices this applies to Manchester in six cases and to Oldham and Rochdale in five.  Greater Manchester and its constituent authorities tend to score particularly poorly on measures of physical health and standards of living and the life stages where scores are particularly low include the early years, older working age and  retirement to old age.

The report goes beyond constructing indices and explores how Greater Manchester fares in respect of health, knowledge and standards of living across the life course.  These analyses reveal some striking results:

•  That men in the most deprived quintiles within local authorities in GM are expected to live seven to ten years less than those in the least deprived;

•  That children eligible for free school meals may fare no better and sometimes worse in those local authorities with overall higher average educational performance;

•  That  the gender pay gap is lower in GM than for England, largely due to lower male earnings;

•  That  70% of professional jobs in Manchester are taken by  those under 40 compared to  50% for GM as a whole;

•   That it is families with children that are particularly over-represented in low skilled jobs or unemployment relative to the average for England; and

•   That among the older working age population, a very high share have not worked for ten years or more or in the case of women have never worked.

More in depth research is needed before statistical findings can inform detailed  policy programmes but the report does point to some principles concerning how to think about and do policy. With devolution and a new mayor in place, there is a new political space for thinking about how we approach social problems and policy challenges. The report calls for people to be put at the centre of development and for a rethinking of policy frameworks, including social goals in investment criteria, so that we move beyond the short term cost benefit approach.  It supports the need for policy to take a life course approach, with policies addressing critical life stages, such as the transition into adulthood or the need to ensure people have good quality work in midlife.

University of Manchester European Work & Employment Research Centre

Jill Rubery Human Development report for GM Poverty Action

Jill Rubery

Graham Whitham, Director of GMPA and author of reports for GM Poverty Action

Graham Whitham

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Tackling poverty and the value of benefits
by Graham Whitham

Poverty is a problem that has worsened in recent years, not just in terms of the numbers of people experiencing poverty but in the way that poverty manifests. In Greater Manchester we have seen a significant rise in the number of people who are homeless, with 3,292 people in the city region ‘surviving without a home’ and many more living in temporary accommodation. People are increasingly reliant on food handouts from emergency food providers.

Whilst there’s much we can do in Greater Manchester to address the issue, it is central government policy which has the most direct impact on people’s living standards and on levels of poverty. Whoever forms the new government after the General Election they will have to get to grips with deeply entrenched levels of poverty in the UK and take steps to stop poverty increasing over the coming years.

The reasons why poverty exists in Greater Manchester, and in the UK as a whole, are well understood; high living costs, a housing market that is incapable of meeting everyone’s needs, a broken social security system that fails to provide a sufficient safety net and an economy that relies too heavily on insecure and low paying work in order to function are all among the structural factors that result in people experiencing poverty and hardship.

The party manifestos all suggest measures that go some way to addressing some of these factors, but none of them presents a comprehensive strategy for tackling poverty. In particular, there isn’t enough of a focus on recognising the importance of the value of benefits. As the IFS have shown, it is the failure of benefits, particularly benefits for those of working age, to keep pace with the cost of living that has the greatest impact on levels of poverty over time. Yet the value of benefits relative to earnings in the UK is among the lowest of the developed nations.

This isn’t a new problem, with the value of certain benefits no longer reflecting what is needed to meet living costs. For example, since the 1970s the value of unemployment benefit has failed to keep up with changes in the cost of living. In 1948, unemployment benefit and the state pension were set at the same value. The level of the basic pension is now more than 50% higher than Job Seeker’s Allowance and this gap is likely to grow over coming years.

Graham Whitham

Graham Whitham

The fall in the real terms value of working-age benefits over a number of decades has coincided with a shift in public attitudes. Public support for spending on benefits generally, and on some specific benefits, has fallen considerably since the early 1980s. Moving to a place where we have a social security system that is effective at driving down poverty requires political will, but also a shift in public attitudes so that support for increases in benefits gets the buy-in from the public it needs to ensure improvements to the social security system are sustainable. Or to put it another way, politicians are less likely to cut, and more like to increase, social security benefits if there’s widespread public support for them.

With a new mayor and new powers in place in Greater Manchester there is a real opportunity to do things differently here and to act as a beacon to the rest of the country, identifying effective ways of tackling poverty and improving living standards. However, national government policies must not just complement these efforts but provide the framework and conditions for a poverty free UK.

This has to include an improvement in the value of benefits.

 

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Mayor Andy Burnham

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Editorial

GM Poverty Action would like to congratulate the new Mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham, who won with almost 2/3 of the votes. During the election campaign he was particularly vocal about his commitment to end rough sleeping by 2020, but his manifesto had many more pledges that related to action on poverty.

The following policies all appeared in Andy’s manifesto, most of which we have taken action on and featured in previous editions of the newsletter:

  • Support for the Living Wage and minimising use of zero-hours contracts
  • Building affordable homes and working to address the housing crisis
  • Action against landlords who fail to adequately maintain properties
  • A Good Employers’ Charter, setting out the basic standards and actions expected of good businesses
  • Strategies to boost skills in adults and teenagers, including workforce development
  • Using new transport powers to make bus services more affordable, more reliable and more accessible to disabled people and families with pushchairs
  • Support with living costs for specific groups of people such as women affected by retirement-age changes, and young people leaving care
  • Championing unpaid family carers and ensuring they are identified and properly supported
  • More training and support, better pay and terms of employment, and more opportunities for career progression for social care staff
  • Making Greater Manchester the most inclusive city-region in the country on disability issues
  • Establishing a GM-wide Fairness Commission to develop plans to tackle inequalities across the city region
Tom Skinner editorial article for GM Poverty Action

Tom Skinner

Some of these sit completely within the mayor’s decision-making powers, while others will require agreement from other leaders. However decision-making is only one kind of power. Spending power is limited, but the combined power of the good will of partners across sectors across the city region will be priceless. GM Poverty Action looks forward to working with the new mayor as a partner, and a bridge to many more partners, in tackling poverty in Greater Manchester.

Tom Skinner, Director Greater Manchester Poverty Action

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Women waiting for a promised pension

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Women Against State Pension Inequality (WASPI) campaigns for the thousands of older women forced to wait longer than they expected for their state pensions. While they agree with the equalisation of the pension age between men and women they don’t agree with the unfair way the changes were implemented – with little or no personal notice, faster than promised, and no time to make alternative plans. Many retirements have been shattered with devastating consequences.

GMPA Work and Wages special interest group logo for GM Poverty ActionFormer Pensions Minister Steve Webb said that the coalition government in which he served “made a bad decision” when it decided to speed up existing moves to raise women’s state retirement age to match men’s. Under a policy set in 1995, the age at which women could start drawing the state pension was to rise from 60 to 65 in line with men by 2020 (although the Government didn’t start to write to anyone about the changes until 2009 and even then failed to write to everyone affected) but the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition decided in 2011 to speed up the process so the age for women would reach 65 by 2018, and then rise to 66 for both sexes by 2020. This meant as little as one year’s notice of up to a 6 year increase for women, compared to men who received 6 years’ notice of a one year rise.

The women who are hardest hit were born between April 1953 and 1955 and they effectively learned when they were aged between 57 and 59 that they would not get their pension at 60, giving them little or no time to plan.

Across the country there are tens of thousands of women who have no choice but to continue to work if they can find a job and if they are fit enough. The alternative is applying for benefits.

Over the last 12 years there have been two other major changes that impact on this issue, the first was the Age Discrimination Act, now superseded by the Equality Act, which allowed anyone to ask to work beyond the default retirement age. Most women who are now 58+ have spent their working lives believing that they would have to retire – except perhaps at the discretion of their employer – at 60 and that when that happened their state pension would be there for them. The second change was the introduction of workplace pensions which requires every employer to offer a pension scheme to their staff – including the women, who had been excluded from some existing company pension schemes. This has become law at various stages since April 2012 (with the last date being April 2017) but before then employers weren’t required to offer any private pension scheme in which you could enrol.

There are approximately 3.8 million women in the UK who were promised their pension at 60 but won’t receive it, with an estimated 400,000 of them now reduced to living in poverty.

They should have had their state pension, no one told them it could be 6 years late arriving.

To find out more and/or to join an active and well supported campaign check out WASPI’s website

 

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Work and Wages Series: Is work the best route out of poverty?

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation reported last month that the number of people in poverty from working households has risen again. Yet again most of the people in poverty in the UK are from working households. One in every eight UK workers is living in poverty, but the Greater Manchester figure is much higher.

Clearly there are a lot of low-paid jobs. But do they build towards longer-term solutions – do they give people a career ladder that they can climb into better-paid jobs? The evidence is not encouraging – four out of five low-paid workers remain stuck in low pay after ten years.

This begs the question, is work actually helping people out of poverty?

Yes and no. Moving from unemployment to work usually increases a person’s income. But if it is low-paid and/or insecure work, and if associated costs are high such as childcare and transport, it may not help at all. This may (or may not) be manageable in the short-term, but given the apparent lack of progression opportunities in most areas of work, work may not be a short-term or long term solution for many people.

Of course, the availability of paid jobs is essential in any bid to tackle poverty but the maxim that “work is the best route out of poverty” is demonstrably untrue, as most people in poverty are already in working households, and have been since 2013. Furthermore some people are not capable of taking on any paid work, or at least not of taking the limited range of jobs that are available, perhaps due to disability, illness, or caring responsibilities.

Rather, the solution for most people now is not just the existence of jobs, but better jobs. (And for those who are not able to do any paid work, sufficient support from the welfare state to help them avoid poverty.) Government seems too narrowly focused on quantity of jobs, but equally important are questions around the quality of jobs.

I have invited several experts to write in response to these questions about quality of jobs. Their responses will form the “Work and Wages” series of articles to appear in future newsletters.

• Do the available jobs pay the real Living Wage (currently £8.45/hr) or more, enough for a decent standard of living?
• Are there enough hours in a job, for people to work enough and earn enough for a decent standard of living?
• Is there the flexibility and support for those who need it in order to work, such as parents, carers, or disabled people?
• Is workers’ representation the answer? What role can trades unions play in addressing in-work poverty?
• Are jobs productive enough to make higher pay feasible? How can employers and employees work together to bring the best out of a workforce?
• Do people gain skills through their work and training (or before they get to the job market), so they can progress into better paid jobs, or jobs that suit them better in different ways?
• Are there enough better paid jobs available in which to progress?
•Are these questions too individualised – do we understand well enough how different communities of people interact with the jobs market, and vice versa (e.g. BME people, disabled people)?
• Does transport and other infrastructure help people into better jobs?
• Are jobs a fair transaction of time and skills given in exchange for financial reward, with responsibility shared fairly between employer and employee?

At present we have more questions than answers. But perhaps if we work together to develop answers to these questions, in the future we really will be able to say that work is the best route out of poverty.

Tom Skinner, GMPA Director writes editorial for GM Poverty Action

Editorial by Tom Skinner

 

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Going against the grain: a new law centre in Greater Manchester

Former Court of Appeal Judge Sir Henry Brooke has published a compelling series on his blog (Musings, Memories, Miscellanea) called ‘Seven Stories of Injustice’. Unsurprisingly, they focus on those whose access to justice has been compromised by the ideological legal aid reforms since 2008. It illustrates the importance of legal aid (which is so often taken for granted), the consistent popular public support for it, and the lawyers whose commitment to social justice is necessarily connected to the areas of law historically serviced by public money.

Law centres, which revolutionised the ability of disenfranchised, excluded and marginalised communities to access legal help, have similarly taken a hit. As spaces that were not just economically but also physically accessible to their communities, they became sites of political organisation. Read the famous cases of the Okolo family or Anwar Ditta and there are law centres behind them.

Greater Manchester – an area of 2.8 million people – once had nine law centres but now has just two. Huge parts of the region have been reduced to advice deserts. A recent survey found that 90% of people with welfare benefits issues were not in receipt of help.

GM Law Centre logo for GM Poverty Action articleThis is what makes Greater Manchester Law Centre so unusual.  Law centres are closing down, not opening. To paraphrase one of its early supporters, Mark George QC, ‘you are all crazy’! GMLC seeks to provide high quality, free and independent legal advice and representation and has done this by adopting a strategy that honours the tradition of the law centre movement, while also developing innovative ways of securing access to justice.

Like its predecessors, it has situated itself within the community. Two consultation meetings, held in areas of inner city Manchester, saw unanimous support for opening a new law centre. As a result, a fantastic newly renovated building was found in the historic Moss Side area. As well as providing legal advice and representation, it has also committed to embedding itself into community projects and campaigns and ensuring that people in the area are an essential, everyday part of the organisation.

The developing law centre has also looked forward. Working closely with Avon and Bristol Law centre, GMLC has adopted and developed Bristol’s immensely successful student led-project (which provides free legal representation challenging work capability assessments), which will be rolled out this year at the Manchester Law School. The law centre is also working with partners to incorporate their pro bono commitments in the provision of its free legal services. Indeed, just last week GMLC rolled out its first free advice and representation service, challenging negative Employment Support Allowance decisions. Another of the many innovations that GMLC has been carefully putting together is the ‘lawyer fund generation scheme’, which invites lawyers, primarily from private practice (so as not to burden legal aid firms) to donate a monthly standing order equivalent to 0.5 % of their earnings. This is ring fenced for services and while the contribution is modest, its impact could be significant.

All of this has been achieved with collective hard work and support. Indeed, the law centre has the backing of judges (including Sir Henry Brooke), peers, firms, chambers, third sector organisations, trade unions, universities and most importantly, the community. It is proud to boast not just Michael Mansfield QC as a patron but also John Hendy QC, Lord Bach, Dr Erinma Bell, Robert Lizar and the critically acclaimed actress Maxine Peake – and all of this in less than a year. But much work still has to be done. Volunteers and supporters have been and will continue to be the backbone of this initiative and so it is incumbent on everyone who is committed to access to justice to make a contribution, whether with their time or money. If people want it, there will be a law centre.

To get involved, visit the website  or follow them on Twitter

Written by Tanzil Chowdhury
Development Worker, Greater Manchester Law Centre (Steering Group)

This article was originally published in the Haldane Society magazine. It mentions two other law centres in Greater Manchester, who also do vital work and who deserve a huge amount of credit for managing to stay open during such difficult times. They are Bury Law Centre and Rochdale Law Centre.

 

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We all gain from greater equality

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Following the election of Donald Trump in the USA, many people are left asking… how?

It seems clear that there was significant sexism and racism at play – we need no statistics to demonstrate this. For Trump to have said the overtly misogynistic and racist things he did during his campaign, and to have got away with it, is alarming.

But another significant factor is income and inequality. The Democrats’ lead in the <$50k income bracket dropped from 22% in 2012 to more like 9% in 2016. It seems that the lowest earners were feeling increasingly hopeless, frustrated and desperate for any kind of change – even the kind of change that seems in so many ways counter-intuitive.

It should be noted that these issues are inter-related as women and BME people are more likely to experience poverty, both in the UK, US and around the world. In addition, factors such as education and cultural identity also played their part, and they also relate to the other issues. It’s complicated! But here I want to talk about income inequality. The single demographic collapse among lower earners was probably enough to swing the election for Trump by itself.

There can be no doubt that communities feeling left behind and out of control are more likely to vote for candidates such as Trump. It’s not for me to get party political in this context, but I think I am safe in assuming that we would all like to ward off the social conditions that give rise to far-right election wins here in the UK!

This means we need to look at income inequality. After falling through most of the post-WW2 years, inequality (as shown by the Gini Coefficient) started to rise sharply in the UK in 1979, and although this rise slowed around 1990 and has occasionally reversed since then, over-all it has stayed roughly level at this very high watermark.

Gini Coefficient 1961 - 2015 graph for GM Poverty Action article

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Graph taken from https://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/how-has-inequality-changed]

This is a dangerous place for any society. Inequality and poverty are bad for everyone in the long run, not just the lowest earners – the Equality Trust have a wealth of knowledge about the impact of inequality on economic stability, health and happiness for example. High inequality breeds exactly the kind of desperation that we have seen play out in the USA, and elsewhere in recent times.

Tom 3

Written by Tom Skinner

As those who work to reduce poverty, we most often communicate that we want to address poverty because poverty is bad for those in poverty. And that is true! We don’t want anyone to be hungry, cold or isolated, lacking hope or real opportunity for positive change.

That’s a pretty big picture. But if we only ever talk that way, we miss the even bigger picture. A more equal society is a healthier and more secure society. Let’s talk more about the role that poverty reduction plays in the development of a healthy, happy and safe society for all.

[Sources]

Roper Centre: How groups votes in 2012
Independent: who voted for Donald Trump
Equality Trust: How has inequality changed?
Equality Trust: Impacts of inequality

 

 

 

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On the spot: Niall Cooper

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GM Poverty Action interviews  Niall Cooper, CEO of Church Action on Poverty

Q: What is tackling poverty really about?

A: Partly about equalising life chances. We don’t want a society that gives people massively different life chances depending on who you’re born to or where you’re born. People make decisions that may have negative impacts but the consequences are more profound when you are on a lower income. Poverty is also to do with the way society is structured and today’s economic model.  The gap between the rich and the poor has widened.

Q: What would an alternative economic model look like?

A: The most obvious one is an equalisation of pay and paying a real living wage. That would lift the bottom, which is very important when 60% of people in poverty are in in-work poverty. We need to ask broader questions about the nature and security of work and challenge the fact that people on low incomes pay more for essential goods and services.

Q: What’s the vision we should be working towards, a poverty-free society?

A: Ultimately yes, but we’re a long way from that. There’s a view circulating today that poor people are somehow different from us – myths about them being lazy, ignorant and stupid. This just isn’t true, those on low incomes are just like us and if we are talking about tackling poverty, the starting point is working with people in poverty. Let’s start with their aspirations, hopes, fears, and their lived experience of what the challenges are.  There’s a tendency even in the anti-poverty sector, that people want to solve people’s problems for them, or assume that we know better than they do but that is hopeless. Think about it, you wouldn’t tackle disability without engaging with disabled people, and it would be hopeless to discuss equality without women or minority communities in the room but it’s still perfectly acceptable to organise events about poverty with no people living in poverty in the room.   That’s part of the problem we need to address. Some of the issues we face are well meaning people who aren’t poor, trying to come up with solutions, which don’t help and in some cases make things worse.

Q: Will there always be poor people?

A: There will always be a degree of inequality but if you look across Europe or the UK’s past 50 years, levels of poverty are not fixed. They have been significantly lower, so it is clearly possible to organise society and the economy in other ways. I don’t see a trade-off between a strong economy and a society of shared wealth. That’s the myth we’ve been sold, that to have a strong economy you have to incentivise the rich and penalise the poor.

Q: Is tackling poverty the responsibility of the state, businesses, or charities, or individuals?

A: It’s the responsibility of everybody. Nobody can duck out of their responsibility to their fellow citizens. Every part of society has a contribution to make, including people living in poverty, who need to be actively involved in the process, not just objects of other peoples’ solutions. There’s a role for government, but it can’t tackle poverty alone. A lot of the levers are held by Government – a key aspect of that is welfare policy.

Q: Do we need a new ‘Apollo’ vision for poverty, a new Beveridge report?

A: No. We mustn’t wait, that’s a disservice to people struggling in poverty now. There’s a huge amount that can be achieved without waiting for reports.

Q: How much of poverty is the individual’s responsibility?

A: We all have responsibilities to each other as well as to ourselves but some people living in the benefits system have very difficult lives. A regime whose starting point is based on punishment is surely immoral and counterproductive, particularly if it leaves people with no means of income. It doesn’t stack up with any concept of human rights. If individuals wilfully do not turn up at a job centre, yes there should be some form of sanction, but that shouldn’t be to deprive someone of any income or means of feeding themselves whatsoever. The evidence shows that benefits sanctions make poverty worse, lead to large scale destitution, and are counter-productive even in relation to its own objectives of getting people into work.

Our objective has to be rethinking policy, engaging politicians and getting them to change their mind and attitudes. We should also talk about the responsibility of politicians who don’t comprehend the consequences of their policies. They need to remember that this is about real peoples lives, rather than numbers and policy. Politicians should meet – and really engage with – people from their own constituencies who can share their lived experiences and insights into the challenges of life on a low income.

Q: What is your view on the way we measure poverty, and approach ‘tackling’ it overall?

A: Questions about measurement are important but challenging. If the ways we measure poverty don’t translate into
something meaningful, that is problematic. Recently, there was a discussion about child poverty on the Today programme, and it became an argument about numbers. Listening to that, you would have thought poverty was a branch of statistics.

For people in poverty, what difference does it make if it was 3.6 or 3.8 million. Worse still, within 5 minutes most people listening will have forgotten all about it.

I understand the need for a poverty line. But statistics and abstract policy debates won’t make people care enough about poverty to want to do anything about it.  To make change happen, we need measures and indicators that relate to people’s lived experience.  And more importantly than that, we need to communicate that poverty is about real people, with real lives, real names, hopes, fears and aspirations – just like anyone else.

Q: In your experience of tackling poverty, what interventions have worked?

A: Work with households looking at mapping assets and strategies. To give an example, we set up a Women’s Group to work with women who had issues with mental health and isolation, and who had no social networks. Many were clinically depressed. For one woman, it took 18 months of gentle encouragement to get her to attend. But her coming to the group transformed her life, suddenly she wasn’t alone. She met with 8-10 other women, who had similar stories to her own. She had a social network that provided support, she became an active member of a group and then went on a training course that took her towards getting a job.

A lot of the anti-poverty interventions are based on silo thinking – ‘that we can fix this one aspect of people’s lives’ without understanding anything about the complexity of peoples lives – or their own agency in the situation.  But if you can bring people together with their own lived experience, they are perfectly able to come up with their own imaginative solutions.

Participatory budgeting is a good example of this – giving local people the opportunity to directly decide how public money is spent in their communities.  They know infinitely more about the needs and what is likely to work, and can often make much better decisions about how to spend money than the so-called experts.  To my mind, the real experts in poverty – and those with the best idea about how to tackle it – are those who live with it on a daily basis.

Church Action on Poverty logo for GMPA articleQ: If you were the Mayor of Greater Manchester, and had a kitty of £100m to spend only on this, what would you do?

A: I would spend a couple of hundred thousand asking people in poverty how they want the money spent. Who am I to know how to spend people’s money for them? Do we trust the people to make the right choices?  It might seem counter-cultural to ask people what they want, but surely that’s the essence of democracy?

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