Opinion

Why ideas of ending poverty are still stuck in the realm of fantasy

Dreaming of a world where poverty was history, John Bird finds common ground with the 19th century textile designer and social activist William Morris

Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1567 painting The Land of Cockaigne

Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s 1567 painting The Land of Cockaigne imagines a utopia much like Morris does in his book. Image: incamerastock / Alamy Stock Photo

Fantasy took me over last week when I spoke at a conference on future generations. Of late I had been dipping into the Victorian socialist William Morris’s book News from Nowhere. He imagines himself in the waning days of the 19th century falling asleep after a heavy debate at the Socialist Club and waking in the morning to find all the world’s troubles had been shrugged off. Gone was poverty, and the increasing despoliation of man and nature by industry. Now London was a melting pot of handcraft workers and the woods of old had grown back into the heart of London itself, nature and man’s harmony with it restored. 

What a fantasy – and I borrowed a bit of that power to imagine a better time. I imagined that from that day onward all had changed. His Majesty’s government and His Majesty’s opposition had uniformly decided to tear up the old governing rulebook that had dominated in some form or other since at least the Second World War. That at last government was going to be reinvented. That the tired old way of thinking and doing was patently failing, as witnessed by its recent response to the inflationary hike that pushed so many people into hunger and need. A bit here and a bit there didn’t get people out of being unable to feed themselves and their children, unable to pay their rent or mortgage. That the preponderance of our low-wage economy was finally hitting home and the government had been unable to converge its energies to stop the impoverishment of even more people. Unable to respond dramatically and effectively to the crisis, they could only do their usual: a patch-up here and there. 

But because they had now thrown away the old rule book there was room for reinventing how government spent its money. How it borrowed and how it invested in preventing people slipping into poverty rather than trying to make them as comfortable as possible once they were in the thick of it. 

Because government was spending circa 40 per cent of its yearly takings on managing poverty – but not getting many people out of it – it would declare war on poverty. Making it the central concern of the epoch. Reinventing education and early years support and stopping poverty being passed like an unhappy inheritance from one generation to the next. Addressing the disastrous demands made on the NHS, which spends roughly half of its money on trying to keep poor people as healthy as they can. 

Addressing the terrible reality that our supposed top universities seem to produce another generation of people who might be good at dinner party repartee but not very good at helping the world through its constant crises. Where are the poverty busters in the ranks of the highly educated? Why do we get the same old prats who come through Oxbridge and leave a mess behind when they retire from their positions of power, wealthier but leaving behind even more historical debris for us to contend with? And erode the concept of working for the public and common good. 

I did rant on a bit about my loathing of how intellectual philistinism seems to dominate the educated classes. Producing partial thinkers who never can put all the bits of the social puzzle together and are therefore useless. The recognition that government is broken and needs urgent repair was my biggest wish. That there would be some time spent on trying to sculpt a new government rule book. And that the latest Spring Budget is another fudging that avoids addressing the reasons why there is so much – increasing – poverty in society.  

But, of course, everyone demands a solution. And, of course, everyone needs a magic bullet. We have been seeking these since the Second World War, when the welfare state looked as if it was a real bullet. Good housing, good health, good education, good jobs. Alas the good housing was only partially delivered; the good health only partially; and the same partialness occurred in the realms of education and jobs. Hence over 70 years later we still have a large group of people whose jobs are classed as unskilled – an insult to the many – and who are not paid enough to lift themselves and their children away from poverty. So we have an economy of incorporated, state-sponsored and paid-for poverty.  

No, my biggest piece of imagining is that the politicians, empowered by us, adopt this simple principle: that what is being done now does not work. Simply recognising that will be a great fillip to improving governmental delivery. We need an audit of the bits that work and the bits that don’t. For instance, social housing has to be turned on its head and made ‘sociable’. So that there are no ghettos of poverty, where the poorest among us are ringfenced from society. There is no democracy in poverty. It’s a murderer of ambition and the ability to choose how to live. Yet William Morris woke up the next morning in real life: industry was still poisoning the river before his house and the workers were still living their alienated and broken working lives.  

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.

Support our vendors this winter and beyond

If you can't visit your local vendor on a regular basis, then the next best way to support them is with a subscription to the Big Issue. As a social enterprise, we invest every penny we make back into the organisation. That means that with every subscription, we are supporting people in poverty to get back on their own two feet.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Millions on universal credit left cold, without food and in debt – because the system is failing us
food bank
Helen Barnard

Millions on universal credit left cold, without food and in debt – because the system is failing us

Police trust is at all-time low after years of scandals. This is what I learned from new recruits
Chris Warburton

Police trust is at all-time low after years of scandals. This is what I learned from new recruits

Why Larry David is the menopausal woman's spirit animal. No, seriously
Lucy Sweet

Why Larry David is the menopausal woman's spirit animal. No, seriously

The roots of NHS decay can't be hidden by soundbite veneers
Paul McNamee

The roots of NHS decay can't be hidden by soundbite veneers

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Here's when UK households to start receiving last cost of living payments
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Here's when UK households to start receiving last cost of living payments

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know