In Factfulness, Hans Rosling comments about the way that we underestimate the improvements in poor countries, and complain that their peoples are pathologically incapable of improving their situation, despite the evidence that they are doing just that. Here in Poland, I’ve been told several times, as I’ve gone to local agencies, that the reason why people are poor is that they come from poor, inadequate families.
When Keith Joseph set up the research on transmitted deprivation in the UK, the situation was admittedly complex; the structures of the UK economy were long-established and it may well have seem that social services had been working with similar problems for a very long time. But the research showed a very different picture. In the first place, poverty was not continuous – people’s circumstances had probably changed within their own lifetimes. Most people had a different experience from the previous generation: the determining factors were the economy, education, and – often forgotten -the impact of partnering. People who were raised as poor might be disadvantaged, but most of them did not stay poor. After the first generation, most people were already in different circumstances from their parents; there were continuities only for a minority. By the time we got to the third or fourth generation, any apparent continuities had disappeared. When the researchers looked for families which had been consistently deprived over four generations, they couldn’t find any.
Poland has changed rather more rapidly than the UK. Two generations ago, in the Communist era, the main experience of poverty was for people in work; then came liberalisation, and the casualties of reform; and now things are changing again. In Lodz, where I’m working, the economy has been growing, and unemployment has more than halved in the course of the last six years. Very few people have a life similar to their grandparents’.
Now, it’s not impossible to argue that, in the scramble for improvement, the race is to the swift – that the people who get left behind, in any generation, are the least engaged, the least competent or least worthy. To accept that, we’d need to accept both that the system does make such a selection, and that it should. We need to question the assumption that if people are still poor when things are improving, it must be their fault.