Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Empathy in regeneration: hugging the poor and saying 'there, there'


Julia Unwin, boss of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) has written a book about combatting poverty. I have yet to read it but I'm pretty sure it will be the usual curate's egg of calls for government intervention and creative ideas for responding to the inefficient distribution of economic gain.

However, the response of some - in this case Neil McInroy from the Centre for Local Economic Studies - is to return to the idea that economic reality shouldn't be described because it's insufficiently empathetic. And worse to suggest that our policy-making should be guided by empathy not evidence:

Too often policy has little empathy toward the poorest.  We already know that the policy default settings, such as trickle down and a ‘rising economic tide will lift all boats’ are just not strong enough to tackle poverty, even in times of growth.  But increasingly, some policy seems alarmingly detached from the plight of the poorest.

For Neil and his ilk, asking why people are poor rather than merely how we should relieve that poverty is a problem. Rather than seeking to eliminate the causes of poverty - why people rely on state-handouts, how some people fail and require relief, the way in which the economy (and society) places barriers preventing escape from poverty - Neil wants us to carry on with his cuddly consensus, with policies best described as "giving the poor a big hug and saying 'there, there'."

Empathy is fine but saying that it necessarily describes the actions - the distorting interventions of Neil's preference - required is to misuse emotion as a policy tool. Emotion guides us to the need to act not the nature of that action. And we've used Neil's qualitative, judging approaches to policy for 40 years - during which time the poorest places in England have remained just that, the poorest places in England.

I don't care how much empathy Neil has - his policy prescription, currently dubbed "place-based" but in reality a localised protectionism, will act only to make matters worse for the poor with whom he empathises so readily. These 'place-based' policies are fantastic for the better off in poorer places - they love all the growing stuff, the collectives, the community meetings. But the poor aren't included - they're looking on as cheaper food is denied, as business is condemned and as a fake "resilience" makes the world less open and more expensive.

Empathy is a fine emotion. But is isn't any sort of guide to what we should do to make people's lives better.


1 comment:

asquith said...

In this vein, do you support Give Directly? I know you, like me, reject the Alec Shelbrooke way of "thinking", that poor people can't be trusted with money.

And it does even more harm in Africa than in Britain. You've got your tryingtohelp charities telling people what to do fortheirowngood, even though they themselves aren't half as good with money as most of the world's poorest would be if they had any.

The tragedy is that we've got so many hard-working people, willing to make huge sacrifices to give their families and communities the hope of a better life than theirs, but they're lacking in that bit of capital that would make their efforts worthwhile. That is why trade is so good. And also why I have taken to supporting Give Directly. Some people, given money, might go and get mortalled immediately- and I'd be tempted if I had to endure a "life" like theirs- but most will invest it in the best way they can see, and I trust their wisdom because it's their life that they live.