Monday, 22 September 2014

If you want to control something you need its right name - a problem with poverty and inequality

"Now you know the Rules of Names already, children. There are two, and they're the same on every island in the world. What's one of them?"

So said the teacher in Ursula Le Guin's short story "The Rule of Names" as she explained how knowing something or someone's true name gave power over them. And there is truth in this if we but look - if we describe something other than as its true nature then the resulting policies and strategies will be misplaced and will likely fail.

I've said again and again that we need to talk about poverty. About how, in a land of abundance, there are some who really go go without things we'd all consider essential. If we are to look seriously at our welfare state and ask about its effectiveness then it is this simple fact - people going without - that tells us the system doesn't work. This is not to say that the system is, as too much rhetoric wants to suggest, set so these people go without because it isn't. But it remains a terrible truth that a system designed to deliver care and support fails a lot of people who it was designed to assist.

I watched a presentation from some housing officers about the simple economics of life for these people who stumble through the torn and badly repaired safety net of welfare. Set out in stark numbers was the reality of the trap such people are living in - a spiral of dependence, debt, ill-health and ignorance. A world where getting a job can make matters worse not better, where the short-term loan quickly becomes a loan shark and where a bewildering array of 'agencies' and 'key workers' creates more confusion than they clear and more trouble than they solve.

Now I don't know precisely what should be done for these people - there's a short-term fix involving making sure they get food on the table, medical support and a house they can afford to heat and light. But there's a longer term fix needed which is about employment, education and health. There isn't a magic wand to wave, we've demonstrated that the poor gain little from expensive government programmes and that the welfare system, no matter how we tinker with it, also provides a hit-and-miss kind of respite.

I've said all this - and I mean it too. But none of it is about the headlines, infographics, data-laden tomes and think-tank reports of the 'poverty' industry. Or rather to correctly name that collective of researchers, charities, academics bodies and Labour MPs - the 'inequality industry'. And it is here that the problem is found. We're told repeatedly that the problem is 'inequality' giving us the impression that poverty and inequality are interchangeable terms meaning essentially the same thing.

Throughout my life - or the politically-aware part of it, at least - the left, in its many manifestations, has wrapped itself in the mantle of caring for the poor and that concern has made us all aware of these issues. But today the left has stopped and instead concerns itself with the non-problem of inequality, with the idea that our problems stem from the fact that one man has more stuff or more income than another man. And this obsessing with inequality has meant that the attention has shifted from the question of helping those people going without to the question of how much another group - 'the rich', 'the 1%', 'the elite' - has.

At a Bradford Health and Well-being Board meeting not so long back, I made the observation that many of Bradford's health challenges derive from poverty and their solution lies in reducing that poverty. The Chairman, and Leader of Bradford Council, chose to agree except that his response talked about 'health inequalities' rather than 'ill-health that results from poverty' - these are not the same thing at all yet we are moving inexorably to a strategy based on health inequality, a strategy that simply won't work because it is responding to the wrong thing - to difference rather than lack.

I do not lay claim to a policy or strategy that would eliminate poverty. Indeed, the nature of poverty is that the reasons for it are many and varied, not simply some failure of system but also a consequence of human frailty, inadequacy and foolishness. But I do know that if we continue to call 'poverty' by the name 'inequality' our policies will not have the desired effect. If we want to resolve, reduce or control poverty then we must begin by seeing poverty and not something else as the problem. And this isn't just a question of arcane ideology but a choice that, if we name the problem wrongly, will result in more poverty even while we claim less inequality.


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