Opinion

Talking about how an emergency came about is not very useful when you are knee deep in the consequences

As another leader falls, stability is what's required right now, says John Bird and so a long-term strategy to end poverty will have to wait

Churchill in 1925

Chancellor Winston Churchill in 1925, when his decision to bring back the ‘gold standard’ led to a rise in unemployment. Photo: Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo / Alamy Stock Photo

A few weeks ago, perhaps a month, I stopped working on a paper I was writing called It’s Expensive Keeping People Poor. The paper was about the lack of productivity that befell what you might call ‘the poverty industry’: that is, all of the people and apparatus and budgets that campaign for and support people in poverty.

In my opinion the productivity – the outcomes – of this industry were poor. Why? Because most of the effort and money that went into tackling poverty has been spent on a resounding commitment to make poor people as comfortable as possible. It was little better than passing a beggar in the street and giving them a bit of money to help them maintain themselves. In short, poverty money was not being spent to prevent poverty, or to cure it. 

The paper aimed to show what was causing this situation, of keeping the poor poor. To show that, if the resources were shifted to education and early family and child intervention, you could actually get people out of poverty by preventing it happening in the first place – in the same way that parents do their best to destroy poverty in the lives of their children through education, social skilling and social literacy, by supporting and encouraging their health and mental wellbeing. Investment is needed to prevent people slipping into poverty, but the focus has been on emergency and coping once they’re there.  

So why did I abandon this work which some, including me, felt was essential in highlighting the underlining causes of poverty, which would hopefully have kickstarted a determination to move budgets into prevention and cure?

Some years earlier I developed what I called the PECC methodology: Prevention, Emergency, Coping and Cure, a mechanism to help us understand what was being done with the poverty industry’s money and resources. Most advocates and charities were obsessed with ‘giving the poor more’, but never with fighting to end the tyranny, the Bastille, the refugee camp of poverty. They did not realise that campaigns for relief were actually keeping people in poverty, not getting them out of it.  

I had developed a kind of broad-brush understanding of the stumbling blocks in tackling poverty. Why, some weeks ago, stop this essential work? It’s very simple – and I hope sensible. When the inflationary crisis started to hit us back in March of this year, I was shocked and astonished by the sudden onslaught of attacks on the government for planning to increase social security by three per cent while living costs were expected to rise to at least eight per cent. 

I was shocked by the inability of those advocating an increase in government support in line with inflation to see what brought so many people into the poverty arena. They could not see that their own advocacy of emergency support, the topping-up policies they had advocated, meant that precious little had been done to get people out of poverty.  

I realised that talking about how an emergency came about is not very useful when you are in the eye of that emergency. The government needs to provide a safety net for as many people as possible – we leave tackling the reasons to another day, when we can breathe again. I realised that you can’t be going on about causes when you are knee deep in the consequences.  

I was wrong, back in March, to be analysing the elements that make up the crisis when I should have been joining the general brouhaha, demanding that the government do more. It’s Expensive Keeping People Poor was for another time, another place, when we had done all we could to address the immediate risk of vast sections of our society not being able to weather the inflationary storm.

I was wrong to be analysing the causes and was therefore pleased when, suddenly, it occurred to me that I was being premature in my deliberations; that I needed to rally like others to push government, business, Parliament and The Big Issue itself into the fight to keep the wolf from the door for so many people.  

So in the nick of time I pulled back and joined the argument for more. But then something strange happened to the political world. 

The government also seemed to have decided that it needed essentially to follow what I was trying to do – to up the productivity of the poverty industry. To address long-term irregularities. To go for growth and not simply accept the poor performance around poverty.  

But the government was going to do it via the economy. They were going to try to up the productivity of the marketplace, to address the low investment, low-wage economy, recognising that we had been in the financial doldrums for too long. They were going to do it by stimulating the wealthiest to spend money on investments that would create better job opportunities, growing the economy out of recession and inflation.  

They were in some ways trying to do what I was doing in poverty: look at causes, how a low-wage economy was an expression of a low-investment economy. They were going for growth, however unpopular and divisive their methods. They were aiming to defeat the seeming orthodoxy of simply trying to patch up the worst effects of inflation and recession.  

But unlike me, they didn’t stop in time. They didn’t stop to realise that in a climate like today virtually everyone, including vast hordes of their own party, want inflation to not rip people’s lives apart. That virtually the whole of Parliament was obsessed with doing what it could to concentrate on this immediate crisis. That this dash for growth – rewarding the richest with the best breaks, even if it was aimed at stimulating investment – was harebrained. It showed a complete lack of political nous.  

As Larry Elliott said in The Guardian when Kwarteng fell: “Kwasi Kwarteng fought the orthodoxy and the orthodoxy won.” Wanting to address long-term issues when life-and-death issues are pressing is not the way to create stability. Especially as the government charged ahead without going through the expected niceties of explaining the figures and how their tax cutting would be funded.  

I, fortunately, withdrew from trying to retool the poverty industry, to await a more opportune time. The government did not listen to the shrill, declamatory shouts of the markets and its own MPs and peers, who seemed almost united in wanting to see off this terrible hike in prices and its effect on the poorest among us.  

So I’ll address the question of why the poverty industry is an industry for making people comfortable in poverty later. In the meantime it’s all hands to the pump. 

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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