The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has issued two reports under the headline, “We can solve poverty in the UK.” They define poverty as being “to have resources that are well below minimum needs.” Their objectives are to ensure that no-one should be destitute, that no-one should be poor for more than two years, and that there should be fewer than 10% of the population who have less than the standard at any time. The first of the reports, UK Poverty: causes, costs and solutions , has a lengthy account of research findings about people on low incomes. The second report, We can solve poverty in the UK, is a manifesto with a long series of proposals.
The reports are lengthy; probably the best way to convey the focus of the approach is to reproduce the key measures they propose. They write:
We could solve poverty by:
• Supporting people to be good parents, helping parents share care and stay in work, minimising the adverse impacts of separation on children, and supporting children and parents’ mental health;
• Giving access to high-quality, flexible and affordable childcare to parents on low incomes, allowing them to work and improving children’s pre-school development;
• Ensuring all children from low-income backgrounds can succeed in school;
• Ensuring all young people leave school with the support, advice, skills and confidence to move successfully into education, training or the labour market and towards independence; and
• Raising and protecting family incomes so they an afford essentials, reduce stress and give children the opportunity to participate socially and educationally.
• Supporting people to gain the skills and capabilities to find a job and progress once in work;
• Creating more jobs offering at least a Living Wage, with greater job security and opportunities for progression; and
• A social security system that incentivises work and increasing hours, and supports people in and out of work to escape poverty.
• Encouraging more older people to take up the financial support for which they are eligible;
• Ensuring more working-age people contribute to savings schemes and pension funds; and
• Providing benefits for older disabled people that are tailored to meet additional costs of disability and care needs.
• Ending the poverty premium through responsible business practices, better customer service, regulatory intervention and product innovation;
• Enabling low-income and at-risk consumers to get the best deals from providers;
• Boosting the supply of genuinely affordable housing; and
• Reducing energy demand through efficiency programmes.
• Enabling young people leaving care to maximise their potential, with proper support around housing, employment and training;
• Providing good quality holistic approaches to family support services, which address a variety of issues, including material poverty and behaviour;
• Providing homeless people with secure, long-term homes; and
• Significantly increasing access to and funding for mental health services.
• Supporting communities to create and implement locally-led solutions and build pressure for bigger change;
• National, regional and local leaders setting a clear vision and co-ordinating efforts across sectors;
• ‘Anchors’ – the big employers and in a place – using their purchasing power and networks to connect to land neighbourhoods; and big businesses and investors helping to rebalance the economy, driving growth up in ways that drive poverty down.
There are lots of measures here, some to agree with, some not, and a scattering (like leadership or responsible business practice) which seem frankly feeble. What it isn’t doesn’t add up to is an anti-poverty strategy. The specific objectives which are identified are not linked to specific measures that could bring them about; there is far too much emphasis on issues (such as parenting behaviour and work incentives) which have consistently failed to address the problems of poverty.
At root, the conceptualisation of poverty is weak. Even if we accept the narrow focus on resources, the reports overemphasise pathological explanations for poverty – individual competence and family dysfunction – and say far too little about either the structure of the economy or social exclusion. The resources that are identified are much too often concerned with cash and work, rather than assets and services. There is very little consideration of entitlements and capabilities, basic security or empowerment. The result is, I regret to say, a missed opportunity.