Poverty kills and harms but if we want to do something about it we need, first of all, to understand the causes of poverty. About a quarter of the general public (23 per cent) in 2010 thought that poverty was caused by individual laziness or lack of willpower. This is the image of poverty we often see in the media, whether it is on the hugely controversial Benefits Street or programmes about benefit ‘scroungers’. Perhaps it is surprising then that virtually the same number of people in 2010 (21 per cent) thought that poverty was caused by ‘injustice in our society’. Not everyone buys into the media stereotypes. Perhaps more alarming, however, was that 35 per cent thought that poverty was just ‘inevitable’. So what are the causes of poverty and is it possible to reduce it?
The public are clearly divided as to whether poverty has individual or structural causes and the academic debate also revolves around the role of individual agency versus structural factors. It is clear that children born into poor families have much lower life chances than children born into wealthier families but is this because of material deprivation (structural issues) or poor parenting and a ‘poverty of aspiration’ leading to cycles of deprivation (individual factors)? There has certainly been much policy and public attention paid to the issue of parenting and aspiration. There has also been much research which has highlighted the complexity of the issues here. For example, children from poorer backgrounds (especially white boys) do have lower aspirations than others but even where these children have higher aspirations, they still did not achieve as much as children from better-off backgrounds. So it is not enough to raise aspirations unless the structural barriers are also tackled. Studies also show that some interventions which aim to raise aspirations do help children to do better, such as mentoring schemes, extra-curricular activities and increased parental involvement. But the success of these interventions is based on the work they do to support children and change their behaviour. This then changes their attitudes. So focusing on giving children from poorer backgrounds more support is the key rather than simply focusing on changing attitudes in themselves.
So aspirations may play a role but it is a minor one. Material factors matter more. Research at the University of Loughborough asks members of the public to consider, in great detail, what people need to maintain a ‘minimum standard of living in Britain today.’ They define this as ‘including, but more than just, food, clothes and shelter. It is about having what you need in order to have the opportunities and choices necessary to participate in society.’ Following intensive consultation and research, a weekly amount is identified to cover different family types. The researchers then compare this with benefit levels and find that while pensioner couples on means tested benefits in 2013 generally had enough to meet a minimum standard of living other groups certainly did not. A lone parent with one child living on means-tested benefits received only 57 per cent of what she/he needed to meet the minimum income standards. A couple with two children received only 58 per cent and a single person with no children received only 38 per cent. It is no wonder that people’s opportunities are so limited when they are struggling to make ends meet on so little and these figures will only worsen as the benefit cuts introduced in April 2013 take hold.
So what can we do? Or is poverty inevitable? Poverty is certainly not inevitable. Levels of poverty change over time and vary across countries. In the UK, pensioners had by far the highest level of poverty in the late 1990s – reaching about 40 per cent. The Labour government decided to tackle this by increasing Pension Credit and introducing other payments (eg Winter Fuel Allowance). Pensioners now have the lowest risk of poverty, closer to 10 per cent. Child poverty was also reduced from the late 1990s onwards through a combination of policies including increases in means-tested benefits for parents out of work and additional support for parents in work. Such policies clearly cost money and in a time of austerity there is relatively little support for increasing benefit levels. But the human cost of poverty is also extremely high. Gordon Brown, the Chancellor of the Exchequer in 2004, and famous for his ‘prudence’ in relation to financial matters argued that: ‘Child poverty is the scar that demeans Britain. When we allow just one life to be degraded or derailed by early poverty, it represents a cost that can never be fully counted’. Poverty is not inevitable. It can be reduced, if not eliminated, if we have the public and political will to do so.