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More than 30 years on, my fight to prevent mass poverty continues

In 1991, homelessness and poverty were rife. Three decades later the same systemic problems have created a new emergency. Big Issue founder John Bird says we must learn from history and put prevention at the forefront of our response.

Lord John Bird

Lord John Bird, founder of the Big Issue

To recap: on the 10th anniversary of The Big Issue I was asked by a reporter what I planned that was different for the next 10 or 20 years. I said that for the previous 10 years I had been mending broken clocks. And now I was going to spend the next 20 years trying to prevent clocks breaking. 

It was then that I started to talk about prevention. I became a pain in the rear to many, many people who kept saying, “How can you talk about preventing homelessness and poverty when you have so many people who are already homeless and in poverty?” 

I stuck to my prevention guns, but did not abandon the idea that we still needed to respond to the emergency of poverty as and when it became manifest. We had after all started The Big Issue as an emergency response to a social crisis. People on the streets, or possibly about to be thrown on the streets, needed to be given a legitimate way of making money so that they did not slip into begging and wrongdoing in order to keep body and soul together. So that if they had habits they did not have to rob to feed their habits; we offered a way where they could earn money without legally compromising their lives. So we were in an emergency, offering a crime prevention programme. And there we had worked, but from then on I was talking about prevention being the big answer to social problems. 

When I applied to join the Lords as a non-affiliated peer it was to raise the issue that we needed to prevent poverty and not simply keep responding to it when it had become an emergency. I was often praised for my dedication to preventing poverty, but often only in the way that you praise someone who is eternally kind to animals. Nothing changed and that was the way it was left. 

Come the pandemic, suddenly we had to go around offering sticking plasters to alleviate long-term problems. Prevention went out of the window when it was necessary to give handouts to Big Issue vendors because they had lost their livelihood. And the news was announced that over a quarter of a million people could eventually be made homeless because they could lose their homes through eviction for non-payment of rent. 

We campaigned to keep people in their homes, as allowing them to descend into homelessness was a mad piece of bad social engineering. Eventually, after 18 months of campaigning, the government set aside £65 million to help with stopping evictions. The problem did not go away, but money was made available to stop people falling homeless. 

Come this year, as the fires of inflation have ignited, we have the biggest crisis we have had to face in decades. Where the working poor and those on pensions or social security were going to lose what little security they had. With more and more people slipping into need because of the runaway costs of almost everything. So what is the answer? Where does prevention come into this? Whether we like it or not, we have to build the biggest alliance ever to prevent this new poverty. We have to be applying for all of the short-term, stop-gap, sticking-plaster support imaginable; because we have to avoid people currently in poverty being joined by even more people. 

We cannot avoid this new change in the conditions of poverty, and the continuing need to do something about it. Poverty blossoms again and expands at an alarming rate. We have to do all in our power to try and soften the blow, reduce the impact. And any real talk about the future may have to be put on the back burner while we get ourselves ready for prevention in a new form, preventing a dereliction and wretchedness possibly not seen since the 1930s. Yet at the same time we have to save some of our resources and think about how we can prevent this emergency harming another generation. Of course, one of the greatest harms administered to people in poverty is that we had not got them out of poverty before this inflationary emergency burst on the scene. So the last emergency was not dealt with and, after it, we did not help build people’s lives away from poverty. 

We did not invest in better, deeper education, in job-skilling people away from poverty. We did not create enough new industries that would offer more than the low-paid jobs that are still plentiful. Preventing mass poverty means taking on government’s reluctance to go deeper. But it also means asking the leading questions as to how and why we have these periodic collapses that never end poverty but push it further down the line. 

To recap: The Big Issue started in a crisis by responding to that crisis. Now it must once again take the lion’s share of responsibility in the fight to prevent impoverishment destroying people’s lives for generations.     

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

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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