Sunday, 4 May 2014

Poverty: perhaps it's time to seek solutions rather than blame?

Political systems must love poverty - they produce so much of it. Poor people make easier targets for a demagogue. No Mao or even Jiang Zemin is likely to arise on the New York Stock Exchange floor. P. J. O'Rourke

Julian Dobson writes, in his inimitable style about poverty in Sheffield:

A couple of weeks ago at the State of Sheffield event, with civic leaders, voluntary sector movers and shakers, academics and more, it was mentioned that one in five children are living in poverty.

This was a meeting to hear the facts, not a call to action. Yet there are some facts that can't simply be added to compendiums of data, analysed, mulled over and wheeled out the next year for comparison. 

Julian goes on to report 'anger' (I would prefer to describe it as faux-anger) and to argue that this rage must be focused to 'hard thinking' with the observation that "you can't live on anger".
The problem for me is that this anger (usually from comfortably off folk) is as much directed to finding people and institutions to blame for poverty as it is to either mitigating or eliminating that poverty. Fingers are pointed at banks, at governments, at politicians and at grand but nebulous things like 'capitalism' or 'inequality'. The problem is that none of this does anything to reduce the number of people 'living in poverty'. Indeed the endless search for bigger and bigger numbers reduces the issue to a game of poverty top trumps rather than addressing the real and pressing problem of absolute material lack.

P J O'Rourke pointed out that there should be no poverty in the USA. Not as some sort of moral statement but simply as an observation about the amount of money spent on anti-poverty programmes by the US government - the income gap (i.e. the amount of money needed to make poor people not poor) was about $50.3bn back in 1991 and the amount spent on recognised anti-poverty schemes by various agencies of government was approaching $98bn. Ergo no poverty.

The same applies in the UK. We spent around £100bn every year alleviating poverty (and this doesn't include such things as free school meals, subsidised housing or funding directed through the voluntary sector, let alone the value of free education and healthcare - it's just half the benefits bill). The Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimate that there are 13.5 million people below the 'poverty line'. A simple calculation tells us that, assuming my £100bn estimate is right, we have about £7,500 per poor person. And bear in mind that most of those people are not on zero income. It should be enough to eliminate poverty.

The problem is that we have a really inefficient and incompetent system of distributing money intended to alleviate poverty. This isn't just the amoral bureaucratic incompetence of making people wait weeks with no income at all while some sort of turgid paperchase is conducted. It's the stupidity of a benefits system that pays money to people who are not remotely poor. And it's the nonsense of spending billions on advocacy, policy and planning rather than more purposefully on helping poor people.

What we've seen recently is that ordinary people are better able to organise the alleviation of poverty than is government. There has been a great deal of nonsense talked about food banks and other voluntary or community responses to poverty but the real message is that these new institutions - private, flexible and creative - are a success in the way that the poverty relief systems and institutions of government are not.

Getting angry is a pointless response to the challenge of poverty. Nor is organising endless seminars, conferences and workshops where poverty is discussed by people who aren't remotely poor (but who make a fine living out of talking about how they help the poor). The answer perhaps lies in private action, in charity and in mutual support - in those very things that were destroyed by the nationalisation and centralisation of education, welfare, and health care.

Sharing my rage in a tweet or even in a blog post does not solve the problem. Any more than does the totting up of poor people, the categorising of their ills and the publishing of calls for government - the very institution that has proven incapable of relieving poverty - to do more. Worst of all are those who want to point the finger of blame at the blameless: at the wealthy just for being wealthy, at the banker for wearing a suit and driving a nice car and by repeating the big lie of the left again and again - that one man's wealth makes another man poor.

This simply isn't true. Poverty isn't the same as inequality and nor does inequality create poverty. Yet people repeat the lie until it corrosive envy starts to destroy the very thing - creating and adding value - that points the way out from poverty. It really is time to start looking for solutions - local, creative, flexible and caring solutions - rather than celebrating vast tomes that merely place the blame.

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