Opinion

To eliminate poverty, and all the problems it causes, we have to aim for the moon

Big Issue co-founder John Bird has a plan to address the causes of poverty

The Beatles: Ringo, George, John and Paul in black and white

The Beatles were successful in escaping their working-class beginnings. Image: Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

We spent an afternoon last week trying to wrestle the idea of a Ministry of Poverty Prevention (MinPov) into being. Or the concept of it.  

It’s a difficult one. We know that 90% of the people who end up in poverty come from the same socio-
economic group. Meaning that they often inherit poverty from their parents – it is their only inheritance. There is a distinct chance that your children will also inherit poverty, and so on down through the generations.  

Lots of stuff goes with poverty. Poverty is a great destroyer of opportunity and possibility. It is as if poverty was a creation of life that must have many things associated with it. It’s a bit like if you have plenty, then you have an accent and the tastes that go with it. 

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Life and society sculpt people into their social positions and attitudes. And in some way, in order to get out of poverty you have to struggle to resculpt yourself into something else. What is undeniable is that there is an incredible array of people who have resculpted themselves beyond poverty.

Vast social changes post-war allowed this resculpting to take place, for example, in the lives of John, Paul, George and Ringo. As the sons of semi-skilled workers they were set to end up working as gas fitters or as stewards in the big ships that came out of Liverpool. If there had been no postwar splintering of the class system then The Beatles and Michael Caine – and John Bird – would not have escaped being the labourers of the day.  

There are so many examples, and Conservatives love to point them out as people who bettered themselves with this resculpting exercise. It is in fact one of the foundation stones of Toryism that you can jump your class constraints and end up as a Boris Johnson.  

Alas for all of the Tory comforts that they say are shareable, we still have millions of people stuck in social security; in poor jobs that barely feed them and their families. So however many re-sculpting examples the Tories can conjure up for our entertainment, there are still a vast amount of people caught in the realms of poverty and need.  

And of course with each new eviction, each new downturn in the economy, each new hike of prices and costs, others fall into the quagmire of poverty.  

But back to our attempts at laying down the backbone or the outline of a MinPov: what is the big thing that you would have to do to achieve it? And why would you want to create a new government ministry? Surely there are too many government departments as it is?  

The how and the why are what dog and fox us. But one thing I am sure of: everyone will tell us you should only go after the possible. So the art of the possible must be practised in all things to do with government. The problem is that if we stick solely to the art of the possible then we will leave millions of people stuck in poverty in decades to come. To actually achieve our ends – removing the stumbling blocks, curing people of poverty and preventing the appearance of another generation of poverty-inheriting children – then we are going to have to aim for the impossible.  

As some of us used to say in the 1970s as we watched man walking on the moon: where’s the same ingenuity, aiming for the impossible, that went into the millions of things that had to be brought together to produce the moon walk? Where is the social and political version of that audacity and the sheer lunacy of wanting to even try it?  

All the answers to poverty are scattered throughout the world. There are so many examples of efforts propounded by governments over the century to drive a coach and horses through poverty. We don’t lack the skills to metaphorically walk on the moon with poverty. What we lack are the engineering skills. Often social engineers lead people into a dead end rather than out of the morass of poverty.  

Anyway, we tried our blue-skying as the first step towards achieving a cogent plan to present to businesses, the public and the government. We struggled with not wanting to simply do the same again. But we concluded that to set up such a ministry, and to get help developing it, we need to sell it to the public. Politicians of the front benches will not themselves inaugurate a new government department that brings together all of the anti-poverty efforts and actions of government and society.  

They will not challenge their own thinking. Or that 50% of expenditure on health is spent trying to keep the poorest among us as healthy as possible. Or that a third of all school costs go on coping with poverty, or the justice department being overwhelmed with poverty.  

Or that the total spend by government on poverty alleviation is 40% of the income from taxpayers.  

Unfortunately, front-benchism means that whoever is in power will run a government that takes the shape of existing government. Government that has not even put a sizeable dent in poverty in the last 15 years. We will do our best to try, with the aid of many others, to reduce the enormous health bill caused by people caught in poverty. By trying to achieve that moon walk, aiming at the impossible. Our attempts are looking like a pig’s ear at the moment.

Like the early stages of one of those movies where someone sets out to achieve the impossible, full of reversals and loss of direction in the early stages, but able to achieve it in the end. In fact, we should make a film about it. How to rid us of poverty, by jettisoning our poverty of thinking

I do hope you have a good Christmas and new year. We have a lot to achieve as a species this coming year.

John Bird is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

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