Opinion

The next government has to get serious about ending poverty. Here's how to do it

The Big Issue founder won't give up until his vision for a ministry devoted to the prevention of poverty is taken seriously

Sir William Beveridge.

Sir William Beveridge discusses his famous report at a press conference on 1 December 1942 at the Ministry of Information, London. Image: AP Photo

“No teacher, no doctor, no police officer is trained to get rid of poverty, but they have to deal with the problems thrown up by poverty,” reads the statement in the small but perfectly formed manifesto I published last week for the next government’s attention. It is an unhappy truth that our public
servants are in the poverty firing line, but are capable only of responding to poverty’s toxic outcomes. 

Would we expect a doctor, teacher or police officer to have the tools, the skills, the knowledge to reduce poverty? No, of course not. Rather, we expect other parts of society and its government to fund and run poverty prevention and cure programmes so that the doctor, the teacher and the law enforcement officer do not have too much on their hands. Rather we expect a reduction of poverty so that it no longer stymies the actions or distorts the working practises of these professionals. Yet poverty does distort their jobs – completely. 

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My manifesto awaits the next government to give advice on how to reduce poverty and points out how the present structure of government is incapable of so doing. That we have to break through “Westminsterism”, a dreadful illness that has befallen politics, causing government to spend the public purse unwisely. And very little of it on poverty prevention and cure. 

The creation of a Ministry of Poverty Prevention, to end the scattergun effect of government policy, is my main argument. That over 80% of government expenditure on people caught in the Bastille of poverty is spent on emergency and little on prevention or cure. Treading poverty water so to speak. 

It is alarming how much poverty and need for emergency support there is. And it increases, with apparently – depending on whose figures you use – one in three children living in need. 

I was therefore pleased to be asked to debate this situation on BBC Radio 4 recently, putting forward my argument that even in the middle of an emergency, a crisis, we have to be aspiring, building the means of ending future emergencies. Because however good we are at responding to emergencies, it doesn’t actually help us get rid of the next one.  

All the food banks and top-ups of social security will not bring us anywhere nearer the nirvana which is the cleansing of poverty from society, making it a social rarity. 

So I went on the BBC pre-record apparatus for perhaps 10 minutes and had a very interesting discussion about child poverty, again apparently on the increase. It is a dire situation. I was pleased that I could advocate that even in the middle of this terrible crisis we must be ‘trying to turn the poverty tap off’ by investing in prevention and cure. 

The interviewer vigorously questioned me about the apparently high unlikelihood of a Ministry of
Poverty Prevention being created. I got the chance to explain that, with eight government departments each having a finger in the poverty pie, the current scattergun effort is a waste of public resources. 

That at the beginning of the Second World War and in the direst of circumstances, William Beveridge was commissioned to write up the report that would prepare for a better post-war world. Even in an emergency you have to be planning to eradicate the chance of a next emergency. 

But when the interview was played, out the window had gone the Ministry of Poverty Prevention and most of my point that responding just to emergency was not enough. You have to be doing both at one and the same time. Giving the help needed now but planning to end poverty once and for all. 

So I listened to an inept piece of radio journalism that told us the usual story but did not give us the hope that one day we will have rid the face of the Earth of the ravages of poverty. What a wasted opportunity. 

Or perhaps (giving the BBC an out here) I was just not clear and concise and convincing enough. 

So I’ve written this mini manifesto that gives advice for the next government to tackle poverty not simply
as an emergency but as a deep and ever-occurring phenomenon. We have to turn the tap off; transfer resources to those early years to end the recurrence of people inheriting poverty from their parents. 

The poverty problem for doctors, teachers and police officers is not of their making and it distorts their ability to function for the betterment of us all. 

We will be putting my manifesto up on the Big Issue website. So do read it if you get the chance. Meanwhile, I will repeat that political thinking has yet to embrace the ending of poverty because they have yet to master the thinking necessary to make it history. 

One thing we will do is create a simulated Ministry of Poverty Prevention and stuff it full of answers to poverty. Imagining an index of poverty solutions would be a good beginning. 

Let’s hope that the next government helps us solve this problem of never getting to the root causes of poverty, always leaving us to deal with its appalling consequences.

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

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