Opinion

When it comes to poverty prevention it's minds we must change – before anything else

We need an entirely new way of thinking when it comes to poverty – could a more scientific approach be the answer?

Higgs boson in large hadron collider. Its discovery was key to solving the problem of why particles have mass. The problem of poverty might also be solved by a more scientific approach. Image: Shutterstock

‘Data’ tells you lots of things. It tells you, hopefully, what is happening. For instance, the data on the amount of children in child poverty. The data should throw up the figures, and what direction they are going in: is it increasing, or is it reducing?  

Data is about proving something. And proving something is about measuring things. Measuring results, outcomes and outputs is now expected in all manner of things to do with social investment – that is, the money that government or philanthropists invest to bring about change.  

You have to prove that what you are doing helps outcomes.   

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When I went into parliament I did so to dismantle poverty. That was my prime objective. I had seen a preoccupation with what I somewhat rudely, perhaps insensitively, described as ‘tinkering with poverty’; doing a bit here and a bit there. Or concentrating on poverty relief, which is the giving out of monies to help people through the day, the week, the month, the year – but which keeps them dependent and never gets them out of poverty.  

My strategy was to suggest that we had to get rid of poverty as a whole and that just giving relief, giving the poor more for the moment, was only postponing the day when we’d have to get serious about poverty and work on its ending. Parliament seemed obsessed with giving the poor more but never questioning itself about how inefficient this method of thinking and acting was.  

Recently I was questioned about what I had achieved since entering parliament and could I prove with measurables, with data, the effects of my actions? To prove something that is in a way unprovable. If I went into parliament to dismantle poverty and poverty is still with us seven years later, surely I have failed? The various bills I have worked on are evidence of involvement; but what of the big thing, the big
poverty thing. How’s that going?  

That is where data and measuring are about as useful as a bucket with a hole each end. Because what you need to do is change the thinking to understand that tinkering with poverty – as I saw it – is not the answer. Getting down and deep with one aspect of poverty in isolation will get you nowhere. Unless you wake up government and opposition to the profound problem that an ad hoc, bit here, bit there, approach to poverty will mean that poverty will simply continue, then you are lost.  

Hence my campaign over the last few years to create a Ministry of Poverty Prevention. A MOPP. With eight government departments each currently having a finger in the poverty pie, no wonder we have been seeing such scattergun outcomes.  

Changing the mind big time is the answer. Endless, repetitious, seemingly obsessed, at times boring: having to continually point out that every one of the major social problems that stalk our streets and our communities boils down to poverty is like being a Jehovah’s Witness-type knocking on doors for God.  

Eyes glaze over when I talk to people in government or opposition because the scattergun effect is perfectly understandable to them. The Treasury often spends social investment money only after the problem has occurred, rather than spending on its prevention, and this mindset seems to continue whatever administration is in power.  

Why? Because the whole political, social, economic and educational system is geared towards this stop-gapism. The acceptance of poor people in society as a fact. The concerns for their relief.  

It is easier to make people cry than to think, is what I found myself saying recently. They cry over the poor rather than think their current thinking and their current crying will change nothing.  

Mindset, changing the mindset; revolutionising thinking around poverty: 40% of government spend goes on poverty-related issues and on the collateral damage thrown up by poverty. Remove poverty from life, even discuss the possibility of doing such a thing – that is the scientific way of thinking. See the ending of poverty as a scientific problem no different from getting Higgs Boson (whatever that was) resolved.  

Humans are the thinking animal but it would seem that we never rise above our former mistakes, being governed by our former practices and the lumpy pieces of former events – history – that we have to carry around with us.  

MOPP is the biggest thing I have ever bitten off to chew. It is so monumentally necessary, when you see so many people who have inherited poverty from previous generations, who have not been invested in to rise free.  

Much of what is going wrong in the world is to do with the distribution of resources. Under all the gangsterism of much of our contemporary political world lurks poverty – the motivator, the driving force. Poverty has lit so many of the current political fires that we are asked to put out. Even the destruction of the environment can be put down to the undying drive by some incredibly wealthy people to escape as far from poverty as possible. It would seem that however far away from poverty you get, you can never get rid of the insatiable need to get even further away by the accumulation of even more.  

But to try and prove, measure, throw up data showing that we are nearer by my efforts to getting rid of poverty is not feasible. Changing minds is the big issue.  

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

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