Poverty; what causes it?

Tegel Airport To Close In 2012

Poverty is not to be recommended- I have seen it; I have had some personal experience of it. It strips you of your becoming. It is like a leach sucking the life from everything you hoped for. There is nothing noble about poverty, nothing sexy. Even those who rightly pride themselves on rising from humble beginnings have only the benefit of hindsight.

Poverty however is best understood as the direct consequence of the wealth of others. I know, it sounds all too simplistic; too much like the impractical economies proposed by Marx, or by Jesus even. But think about it; poverty is caused above all by this one thing; inequality.

Not that we talk about this much any more. The Government is currently engaged in a redefinition of child poverty in the UK (previously defined as growing up in households with less than 60% of median income) towards something defined instead by an understanding of the so-called root causes of poverty, including family breakdown, debt and addiction. This seems to make sense at first, until you look at the evidence.

The government is influenced mostly by the work of the right wing think tank set up by Ian Duncan Smith called the Centre for Social Justice, who paint a picture of UK poverty that is tied up with bad parenting, highlighting cases of alcoholic, crack-addicted parents and parents who abandoned their children to play bingo and survive only by running up huge debts. Makes instinctive sense right? (Be honest.) Poverty in families is about dysfunctional parents. Don’t let the facts get in the way of such self-evident truth.

It is almost as if the very word poverty is now to be regarded as tainted. Duncan Smith announced recently that the Child Poverty and Social Mobility Commission is soon to be known simply as the Social Mobility Commission.

So, what really causes poverty? The Child Poverty Action Group has a list of ‘Child Poverty Myths‘ on its site that are well worth checking out. They make the point that dependency on alcohol and drugs and family breakdown are societal issues across both those who are poor and those who are wealthy, but are relatively rare in both social groups. Best estimates are that around 93% of benefits claimants do not regularly use alcohol or drugs in a dependent way, and over 60% live in two parent families.

Then there is the myth of ‘benefits dependency’; the suggestion that people are captured in a culture that enforces idleness and rewards worklessness. The logical answer is to make benefits so unattractive that people are forced to find work; a return to exactly the same kind of thinking that gave us the Poor Houses.

  • Data also shows that many claimants rely on benefits for only short periods of time. For example, 67 per cent of Jobseekers Allowance claimants find work within 6 months while a further 22 per cent are no longer claiming benefits after 12 months.2
  • Recent Department for Work and Pensions focus group research offers an interesting insight into job-seeking behaviour of a sample of claimants.3 It showed that while 22 per cent of the group were not actively looking for work, half of these dedicated their energies instead to their families, a statistic that speaks to other types of important work that claimants may undertake but which has no monetary value.

It is clear however that worklessness, or low paid, temporary work is very much a direct cause of poverty. Some people can not work, through sickness, family caring responsibilities, lack of adequate childcare or a general lack of work opportunities for their skill set.

Then there is the general denudation of benefits. They are worth so much less in real terms than they were previously. This from a TUC paper entitled Welfare Benefits – A necessity not a lifestyle choice.

Benefits in the UK are comparatively lower than other industrialised countries; with one of the lowest benefit rates relative to earnings. In addition the actual value of benefits in the UK has declined over the last thirty years due to a change in the policy of up-rating benefits. In the 1970s, benefits were increased in line with earnings or prices whichever was higher, over the last 30 years they have increased each year in line with prices only. Prices usually rise by less than earnings, since 1978 average earnings have grown about 1.6 percent a year faster on average than prices. The effect of this, as Peter Kenway (2009) shows us, is that while real consumption per head has risen to a level that is now more than double what it was in 1978, the real value of unemployment benefit has remained fixed at or 3 around its 1978 level. Numerous studies show that the current level of benefits are too low to meet current expenditure levels and what the general public think is needed to afford an acceptable minimum standard of living. The consequence of benefits not rising as fast as other forms of income is that the income of benefit recipients will fall further behind those in employment. This inevitably contributes to a widening of income inequalities.

There is that word again; inequality.

There was a fascinating discussion about social mobility last week. The social equality that Duncan-Smith is deliberately selling us is based on the old American dream; we can all succeed with the right levels of effort. What was revealed recently however was this; in order for poor children to succeed, rich kids have to fail, and rich parents do not like that very much, so create a kind of ‘glass floor’ to prevent their offspring falling. No surprises there.

So, what do we know about the causes of poverty? Of course it is possible to point to lots of individual factors; poor choices, missed opportunities, broken families, bad luck even. But what we know is that at a societal population level, these are symptoms much more than causes. People are in debt because they are poor, not the other way round.

The cause of poverty is unequal distribution of resources, unequal opportunities to thrive and prosper and a society in which the rich are getting richer and the poor are blamed as being the cause of economic woes that they are subject to, not the cause of.

Back to the Child Poverty Action Group. This from here.

“Producing a way forward for tackling poverty that doesn’t recognise that poverty is about money is pretty astonishing,” Imran Hussain, the director of policy for the Child Poverty Action Group, said.

“The government should be keeping an eye on issues like kids living with drug-addicted parents, but this is not the same as poverty. The government seems to be suggesting that income doesn’t matter.”

Fiona Weir, the chief executive of Gingerbread, the charity that supports single parents, warned that “further stigmatising single parent families will do nothing to tackle child poverty”.

“Family breakdown doesn’t cause child poverty. It is unaffordable childcare, low levels of maternal employment and poor wages that push families below the poverty line,” she said.

Poverty, fast food and ignorance, 2015…

Reversing poverty requires a more progressive tax system and a shift in the political mindset

I heard an article on the radio the other day about fast food workers and their terms and conditions of employment that rather shocked me. It is no secret I suppose that those working in the catering industry are amongst the lowest paid and enjoy the poorest job security. The ultra-efficient food production system that gives us those addictive hits of over-salted fats and complex carbohydrates is in some ways most impressive. When it was being refined in the USA they were keen to extract every dollar out each gaudy outlets and so the human components become carefully managed production units, managed according to the footfall on an hour-by-hour basis.

What I did not know is that around 80% of those working in the fast food chains that we are all so familiar with are on one of those notorious ‘zero hour’ contracts, which basically means that they work only when required and their employer sends them home when demand slackens in order to save money. Many also have to sign an exclusivity clause in their contract that forbids them working a second job, so ensuring their continued availability, even when not actually being given paid employment. It will be no surprise to hear that this workforce has a very low level of unionisation.

One man told a story of how he always finds himself running out of money towards the end of his two week pay cycle, running out of food a couple of days before pay day, and then waiting at the cash machine at midnight as the money cleared in his account in order to be able to eat.

He described how difficult it was to keep working in the fast food industry when he was so hungry.

Someone employed to make the food that is almost the definition of excess (rather than need) is going hungry. Is this the society we are making; one in which a wealthy international elite can manipulate markets to the maximisation of their own profit margins whilst those at the bottom end of the ladder literally go hungry?

I think it is even worse than this however- somehow we have allowed ourselves to become convinced that this is a good thing; that hunger leads to aspiration and in turn to greater effort; that a good society is based primarily on the protection of wealth creation for the few so that the many can aspire to greater riches themselves. Alongside this is the ‘austerity’ narrative- the idea that the poor and old and weak are an unaffordable burden on a society that has been spending beyond its means and that this in turn rewards indolence and fosters worklessness and idleness.

What is almost entirely missing from the debate around these issues is any sense of objective analysis of the causes and effects of this poverty and growing inequality on our society. It is not as though this research does not exist- accumulated over 60 years by post war social scientists. The evidence base that could and should be driving our policies appear to be irrelevant to those in power whose reference points and inspiration appear to come from right wing think-tanks driven by a neo-liberal agenda, starting with ideas of libertarianism and concentrating on shrinking the state to allow full rein to the free market.

This is not evidence based policy, carefully thought through according to what we think might be the least worst option. It is driven instead by ideology and the primacy of the profit incentive. There needed to be a story told to justify the bitter realities of this ideology, and we have accepted it almost without question.

But there is much that would challenge this narrative should we care to look for it. I grew up in a single parent family, entirely dependent on the welfare state. Back in the early 80’s Britain was in the grip of another recession, one which saw over 3 million people unemployed as Thatcher rolled back all those state owned and supported industries. It is perhaps sobering to note that since 1983, the UK economy has doubled in size but the proportion of household falling below what might be regarded as minimum standards of living has also doubled.

Other research would suggest that 2 million more children live in deprived households than in 1999 and food poverty (measured in terms of numbers of meals per day and things like meat/fresh fruit and veg) improved in the last decade but has considerably worsened over the last 10 years. These issues are simply not on the national agenda however. Rather we have individualised everything as if the only cause of poverty is the individual action (or inaction) of the poor themselves.

As a social sciences graduate and someone who has worked in and amongst the poorest of our society for my whole career, I asked myself what I knew that set me at odds with the current direction our society is taking, and came up with this list;

  1. Inequality leads to unhappiness
  2. Poverty brutalises
  3. Poverty has to be measured relative to neighbours
  4. Poverty makes people ill
  5. Poverty is self-sustaining
  6. Poverty is mostly heritable
  7. Poverty is a Political choice
  8. Poverty is a theological issue

I wanted to think more about these things, to weigh again the research evidence and to raise my own small voice to push against those in power whose self-serving narrative is so apparently seductive to those of us with a degree of comfort, particularly when the mix is laced with an unhealthy dose of fear and prejudice.

So my plan is to revisit some of these issues here over the next few weeks and months…

sea tree swimming…

Fish clock, with pendulum, sea tree

A few years ago, partly as a means of coping with stress but mostly in continued longing for small acts of creativity, I started making things out of scraps of driftwood, copper and stones. Michaela was already creating all sorts of other things too; mainly from clay, so we started to make things together.

We made a lot of mistakes, but slowly we started to evolve a style of sorts; translated in the form of colours in glazes, raw materials and a general ethos; things had to be simple, made from recycled and found objects, or contain something of the sea and the sky. We started to gather the things we made under the label ‘seatree’.

For a while, we had a dream of this becoming our main source of income. Perhaps we could actually live in this simple way; making things that could provide for our needs, which were to be simple. In part, these dreams were thwarted and so they faded. I found it hard to find motivation to go back into my workshop. I was so busy with other things, so tired after my day job.

However, seatree never fully submerged; it was a thing that still bobbed around in the flotsam of our lives, bashed about on the odd circumstantial rock though it might be.

More recently, the things we make seem to be becoming appreciated. Galleries in a few different places are stocking them and things are selling. This is a surprise to me; I will never again sit at one of those dreadful craft fairs if I can help it, with people making appreciative noises whilst walking on by. What we make is so simple after all.

Perhaps we will never earn enough money from these things we make to making a living, but that is OK. On Saturday the rain fell, meaning that the cricket game I was due to play was cancelled. We have orders, so into the shed I went, with some reluctance.

But then I was lost into a familiar world of wood, of tools, of shaving and shaping. 10 hours later, I emerged, sore, dirty and yet alive- content within my dust-covered skin.

Here are some things that we have made;

The hoards massing at our borders…


I have just listened to a news item about the ‘Migrant Crisis’ in Calais. The language used made me feel a bit sick. Apparently the migrants ‘stormed’ the tunnel terminal and ‘overwhelmed’ the customs officials who were ‘engaged in a constant battle’.

What struck me was this; the narrative we are being given reminded me of those ‘Star Ship Trooper’ films in which hoards of non-human insects (Migrants) are massing to overwhelm the poor humans (us)

This version of the story is unrelentingly one-dimensional. It plugs in to our deepest fears in exactly the same way as films about invading insect killers. The implication is that we are under threat- our homes, our children and our individual security is directly at risk. The outsiders have no story of their own that is relevant here- they are less-than, not-human, evil and malevolent.

star ship troopers

This narrative fails on so many levels as an adequate way to describe what seems to me to be happening in Calais;

  1. Perspective- last nights events involved around 150 desperate people. They were not an army, they had no claws or tentacles. They want only to find a better life for themselves and their children. There will be far more violence each evening in the drinking zones of our cities.
  2. The meaning for our comfortable lives. What does it say about our world that the huge inequalities and conflicts can stimulate such acts of desperation?
  3. What is good and what is evil here? There are other narratives that might shed light- the story of the pioneers who seek new opportunity in another land.
  4. Or an understanding of the legacy of Empire and the continuing enforced North/South inequality that sustains our own lifestyles at the expense of those parts of the world where the ‘others’ live.
  5. The operation of international capital that rewards the very few at the cost of the many.

Perhaps more than all of this however is the fact that when we treat the outsider as less than human, we too lose our humanity. We are diminished.

People like me, who have tried to understand the world in the light of the stories told about Jesus, have a particularly pressing need to watch for narratives like these. We are are called always towards the other; to seek ways of understanding, grace, engagement, love. This narrative takes us in a totally different direction from the one described above.

Firstly it should perhaps force us to reconsider our own feelings of fear and threat and to place them alongside the manifest unfairness and heartbreak that others are experiencing right on our doorsteps.

Next we should look for the real stories that are being lived by the other- those making incredibly perilous journeys (as humans have always done) towards the hope of better lives where they and their children might flourish. Some of them are fleeing oppression, violence and poverty. Others are educated with gifts and abilities that might be desperately needed within our stagnating aging population.

Finally, we should always resist the voices that demonise and scapegoat the other in order to achieve their own narrow political agendas. There seems to me to be a lot of this around at the moment and there are plenty of warnings from history of where this kind of thing leads.

Garden deer, the new generation…


Will spotted it first; a tiny shape nestled into the hedge.

S/he staggered on ungainly tiny legs, watched from distance by an anxious mother before settling down, quivering slightly, over-reliant on speckled disguise.


Spring 2015

I was in Edinburgh on Sunday with an old old friend, Simon. We were there to take Will to play cricket- a region match, West Scotland against the East. West won easily thanks to a century from one of the lads. Will only bowled 3 overs (1 for 11.)

Simon and I found time to walk the streets of the posh part of the city. It seemed like a place in a country I did not recognise; massive houses, posh cars, private schools (we were overshadowed by the massive gothic confection that is Fetters College, Blair’s place of unfortunate education.)

We stumbled across Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh and as Simon is a Landscape Architect by profession we had to go in. Not that I minded- I love gardens. I love the tranquility that an organisation of green things can convey. It was a lovely thing to do- walking round the place with my old friend, not needing to worry about silence but still quick to find slow moments of humour. It was hard to escape a slight feeling of unreality though- all the plants are imports, aliens, refugees, asylum seekers. Some were stolen by Victorian plant hunters and collected for their sheer weirdness, even though their survival in this new climate required a vast heated glass house. In the midst of those wealthy tartan streets it was easy to empathise.

The gardens are free to enter, although you have to pay to go in the glass houses. It is worth it though. (Locals to Dunoon- you get in free if you are a Benmore Garden ‘friend’.)

Losing our compassion…


The election is over and they won.

I am not quite sure who ‘they’ are any more- but I know them when I see them, I know them when I hear them. They are the ones who have an agenda that is motivated by many things but whose compassion is buried deep; it is not entirely absent, but is nevertheless entirely subordinate.

We have been fed a great deceit; that in a time of austerity, self interest is the only logical path. We have allowed ourselves to be convinced that efforts towards social justice are politically naive, as the poor only have themselves to blame. We have been convinced that the heroes of our society are the ‘wealth creators’, whose laudable desire to accumulate is the only social good that matters. The outsiders? Keep them out. The sick? Let them suffer quietly (and cheaply). Those fleeing violence and wars and poverty from other parts of the world? Not our problem.

So it is that our leaders are about to do away with the Human Rights Act- who wants Johnny Foreigner telling us what we should or should not be doing to the weakest in our society?

So too are they going to find ways of cutting £12 billion from our welfare budget- at a time when our population is aging and suicide rates are on the rise from all sorts of brokenness at the cutting edge of austerity. (Remember that only 6% of Welfare is spent on unemployment benefits. Pensions are by far the biggest share.)

Up here in Scotland we can feel slightly smug- after all, a surge of left leaning politics means that we are different. Except this difference comes at a cost- the old cross-border alliances are broken.

It is all about leadership, some say- we chose the wrong man, perhaps the wrong brother. He did not get his message across. Perhaps not, but I find myself wondering again- where did the compassion go?

I will not believe that this is the best we can do. I will not believe that self interest is ever the route to happiness and healthy societies. It walls us off in our small private spaces, counting each precious pinched penny and jealously guarding every inch of privet hedge- as if this was the way that life could be measured.

Christians should know better of course- we have read the beatitudes, but set them aside in favour of a twisted version of John 3 v16. We pretended that sober respectability equated to a very suburban kind of salvation, forgetting that our Saviour was homeless, workless and consorted with all sorts of unproductive people reliant on benefits and charity for their daily bread. Forgetting that at the end of the day, only three things remain; faith hope and love…

And the greatest of these is love.