"Poverty in perspective"

A new report from Demos offers a distinctive way of looking at the experience of poverty in Britain. The report identifies fifteen different household types, in three main cohorts or categories: families with children, working age people without children and pensioners. The report is strongest in relation to child poverty, where the statistical material is backed by qualitative descriptions of the circumstances.

It’s a very good, serious report, and it’s convincing in parts. It should certainly make the government hesitate about its recent proposals to “measure” child poverty in much cruder terms. I have two main reservations, however. The first concerns the principle of segmentation, which tends to imply that the categories (several are given jokey names) are predictable and stable. One of the central messages about the dynamics of poverty in other studies has been that poverty is multi-faceted and complex, that people move in and out of different patterns of deprivation, and that there is often a “web” of deprivation where people struggle to redefine their circumstances, only to find that they are trapped by another problem. People’s lives are complex, and attempts to simplify and classify inevitably tend to stereotype.

The second problem lies in the recommendations for policy, some of which are based unavoidably in the characteristics of people who are poor. One has to ask whether the problems considered – low wages, insecure employment, poor pensions – are really something that should be addressed at the level of the individual.

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