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Social justice
28 June 2012

The politics of poverty and the poverty of politics

John Kay was one of the original New Labour gurus. It’s therefore significant to see him incline, however cautiously, towards Iain Duncan Smith’s thinking on poverty.

He begins by asking what poverty actually means in today’s world:

  • “People who struggle to find enough food to eat are poor. The World Bank’s poverty line is an income of less than $1.25 a day… Fundamentally, poverty is about absolute deprivation.
  • “That is clearly not the end of the story, however. On the World Bank standard no one in North America or western Europe is poor… in a rich society, poverty is an enforced inability to participate in the everyday activities of that society.”

Essentially, this is the concept of social exclusion – an area of policy that was once closely associated with New Labour. However, as John Kay explains, it is now Iain Duncan Smith who is developing the idea:

  • “The poverty of a household trapped by drug addiction will probably not be eliminated by extra income. Poverty as exclusion from ordinary life may be caused by weak parenting skills, debt from financial incompetence or mental health problems. On the positive side, employment and family life are the most powerful forces of social inclusion.”

Though careful to distance himself from old-fashioned ideas about the ‘undeserving poor’, Kay argues that “understanding the multiple facets of poverty is a necessary guide to how that money is best spent.” And this is where he appears to endorse Duncan Smith’s decision to overhaul the official definition of poverty – and the targets that go with it:

  • “The statutory adoption of a particular statistical definition of poverty is the product of Gordon Brown’s era of target setting. The emphasis on supposedly objective measures led to expenditures on schemes – notably the child tax credit – designed to be closely related to the target itself. That kind of distortion arises whenever a single metric is used to describe a multifaceted complex phenomenon such as the incidence of poverty.”

It all seems so obvious now, doesn’t it?

That’s because it always was obvious. Gordon Brown got away with it for so long because our political culture doesn’t care about the really big mistakes. Mess up in some small way – say, by flunking a Newsnight interview – and you’ll be the target of an instant outpouring of exaggerated contempt, but if you fundamentally misconceive a policy that impacts upon millions of lives then, don’t worry, it won’t be noticed until it’s much too late.


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