Three points to bear in mind when you talk about preventing poverty | CPAG

Three points to bear in mind when you talk about preventing poverty

Published on: 
05 July 2019
Written by: 

John Veit-Wilson
Emeritus Professor of Social Policy, Northumbria University

CPAG was founded more than fifty years ago to bring the facts of family poverty to government and public knowledge and to press for reform. The devastating report (2018) by Professor Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, shows how government withdrawal of responsibility and resources during the past decade has led to more families being pushed into poverty, and relief work by NGOs to alleviate poverty is not enough to compensate sufficiently. If your aim is to prevent poverty and not just to relieve it, there are three important points you must bear in mind, about what it essentially is, what resources are needed to prevent it, and how we talk about it.

What is poverty?

In social science, poverty is a relational concept. That’s why we talk about relative deprivation. All poverty everywhere is relative to some standard of not-poverty – to adequacy. It’s often measured in terms of cash incomes, and when people haven’t got enough money for food, heating, housing, clothes or other immediate essentials like these, and suffer severely adverse consequences such as malnutrition or homelessness, those forms of extreme poverty are sometimes described as ‘absolute’. However, the word ‘absolute’ has no technical or agreed meaning. For instance, the government uses ‘absolute’ merely to make statistical comparisons for political purposes, but does not use it for extreme poverty of the kind Philip Alston illustrated. Using ‘absolute’ to describe extreme poverty in the UK allows non-poor people to dismiss the experiences of poor people which aren’t so extreme as not ‘real’ poverty, which is insulting to victims.

Whatever you call poverty, it can only be understood by contrast with adequacy. Adequacy covers everything that we take for granted in not-poor society, just good enough but not luxurious. Peter Townsend famously defined this not-poverty as ‘ordinary living patterns, customs and activities’ – in other words, messy, inclusive social life as we live it. Poverty was defined as having ‘resources so seriously below those commanded by the average individual or family that they are in effect excluded from ordinary living patterns, customs and activities’ (average meant typical or ordinary).1 Human rights conventions refer to a dignified and decent level of living. That means having freedom to choose to live a socially inclusive life, to do all the same silly, wasteful things that everyone else can do, whatever their personal problems, without themselves becoming poor. It means not being told how to live your life by other people who control your resources.

Poverty as inadequacy, indecency, must not be confused with statistical measures of the serious lack of resources, or with income inequality measures. Income measures are necessary proxies for the lived reality. They look precise, but they are imprecise in how they apply in real lived contexts. Income inequality measures such as 60 per cent of median household incomes are misleading because medians don’t tell you anything about adequacy, and people can be poor at incomes well above the median as well.

Nor should the concept be defined by the many descriptions of the dreadful life experiences of poverty’s victims. What’s misleadingly described as ‘absolute poverty’ is descriptions of extreme consequences – they are not definitions. The single defining cause of poverty is people’s serious lack of the material resources needed to be able to choose to live a messy, inclusive social life like everyone else with adequate resources. People’s personal characteristics are not causes.

What resources are needed to prevent poverty?

Most poverty arguments are about people’s power over their own disposable cash resources. That makes sense for discussing pay or social security or basic income, but not in the larger discussion of poverty. In our consumerised and marketised society enough cash can buy you out of most problems, as all rich people know. But humans live in complex societies and not simply as individual purchasers in perfect markets, the fantasy worlds of theoretical neoliberal economists and asocial political philosophers.

The material resources needed for adequate lives are largely collective resources. The more people are supported by collective resources, the less they need individual cash resources. Most people leading adequate but not rich lives depend heavily on collective resources, not just on their own purchasing power. That’s all the stuff national and local governments provide which can enrich lives and widen choices, like health services, social care, education, cultural and recreational services, housing and public transport. Most of these involve a direct trade-off between collective and individual resources: if they aren’t provided collectively in some form, then you’ve got to pay for them, and that may lead to poverty. Examples include the reduction in public rented housing in favour of the private market, but bus service deregulation too has impoverishing effects. The point is that when we discuss poverty as a serious lack of resources, we should think about not just individual incomes but the collective resources, in cash and kind and over time, which contribute to enabling people to live adequate, inclusive lives.

How do we talk about poverty?

Precisely because poverty talk is about victims’ suffering, we overlook the risk of ‘othering’ people in poverty. The US 1960s ‘War against Poverty’ language of We the People and They the Poor allows politicians to ascribe poverty to poor people’s personal behavioural problems. This deliberate closure of the poverty discourse to emphasise only individual deficits aims to distract us from two things.

One is to divert attention from all the people with the same behavioural problems right across society and the income spectrum. But some are not poor as well, because they have adequate resources as well as behavioural deficits.

Second, whenever we talk about preventing poverty by doing things to or for the victims, it suggests the causal problem lies only with the victims, who must therefore be changed. The aim is to distract us from understanding that the power to bring about structural change is held not by victims but by governments. Governments distribute collective and individual resources so that poverty is imposed on some people while non-poor people get benefits like tax allowances. The prevention of poverty is a political problem, not a merely technical or philanthropic one.


Peter Townsend (1979) Poverty in the United Kingdom, Penguin, p 31

John Veit-Wilson was a founding member of CPAG in 1965. He is Emeritus Professor of Social Policy of Northumbria University and is guest member of Sociology at Newcastle University.