Fran Bennett, Senior Research Fellow in Social Policy at the University of Oxford in conversation with Ruth Lister, Professor of Social Policy at Loughborough University and a Member of the House of Lords looking at the inspiration and themes behind Ruth Lister’s book Poverty and exploring some of the new thinking she is currently developing. They begin with one of the main influences on the book, the Commission on Poverty, Participation and Power, on which Fran acted as secretary and Ruth was a commissioner.
Fran Bennett: We were going to talk about your book on poverty, published in 2004, in particular and one of the things which I think influenced it was the Commission on Poverty, Participation and Power
Ruth Lister: That’s right. For me, being on that Commission was an incredibly powerful experience because half its members were people with direct experience of poverty. Listening to them, and what mattered to them, and what poverty meant to them, made me understand better what poverty was really about.
It opened up a different way of thinking about poverty and underlined the importance of experiential knowledge.
When I was asked to write the book by Polity Press in their Concept Series, if I hadn’t had that experience I would probably have said no because I would have thought I had nothing new to say. But that completely changed my thinking and I felt I did have something different to say about what poverty means.
FB Because sometimes now it seems that we talk about poverty in quite a narrow way and that we focus on the technical measures aspects of poverty. So we talk about whether income is important or not and what percentage of income it should be and so on. But what I got from what you said just then is that what you thought was important in the book is that you’d focus on the concept more, rather than those technocratic narrow debates that we tend to have. Is that right?
RL That’s right and what I did – in thinking about how to write a book about the concept of poverty – is I made a very clear distinction at the beginning between concepts, definitions and measures. I argue the importance of the conceptual level – the concept is about what poverty means, about how we understand it - both those who experience it and to the rest of society.
That then provides a framework for what we normally talk about which is definitions and measures. We also have to make a clear distinction between definitions and measures.
So much about public and political debate fails to do that. You’ve been involved in this as well I know, Fran – you wrote a letter recently to the Financial Times challenging someone who mixed them up. The measure, the normal measure of poverty in this country and many others, is 60% of median income. But that’s then treated as a definition and of course, it’s totally inadequate as a definition.
The definition is what distinguishes the state of poverty from non-poverty. And then you need to operationalise it. 60% of median income is one measure. Others include measures of material hardship. Both of these measaures are included in the Child Poverty Act. But then people say ‘oh poverty isn’t just income’. Well, it isn’t just income, but I would still argue that income is central and I think would be central to any definition of hardship that comes from inadequate income.
FB Yes I found that really useful in your book in fact, although clearly the experience of poverty, and causes of poverty, and the consequences of poverty are about more than income or indeed, resources.
I found it really interesting that you put the emphasis on the distinguishing feature of poverty being inevitably to do with the lack of resources, and then how you operationalise that. It could be deprivation of material things or it could be income and often it’s both and it depends on what means you’ve got at your disposal, but I found the core idea of the lack of resources as being important to distinguish poverty from other things that are debated – I found that really important.
But the other thing I found really important, is the emphasis you put on poverty in terms of relationships. So you talk about the material core of poverty, and that was absolutely clear. But you also talked about the ‘symbolic rim’.
RL Again it very much came out of the experience on the Commission that when people talked most passionately about poverty, it wasn’t so much about the economic hardship (because in a sense that was almost taken for granted) it was about how people felt they were seen and treated by the rest of society.
The theme that came out time and time again in that Commission was people feeling they were treated with a lack of respect and so one of the key themes of the book is that poverty isn’t simply an economic condition as bad as that is, but it is also about an all too often shameful and corrosive social relation and if we are to understand poverty as a concept we need to understand that relation.
FB Can you give some examples of that because what does it mean in terms of either the public debate or the way in which people are treated in person-to-person relationships, in the benefit office or in a shop.
RL I think it goes at every level. In public debate, we have it time and time again when people talk about being a member of an ‘underclass’ or being ‘welfare dependant’ or ‘languishing on benefits’.
These ways of talking about poverty are about treating people as ‘other’ – that they are different from us. And that can feed through into being treated very disrespectfully in the benefit office or social services or whatever and not being listened to. As if people themselves had nothing to say about their situation. It is this thing of being treated as ‘other’ and inferior and a dividing line being drawn between us and them.
FB We have talked before about the idea that you try not to use the phrase ‘the poor’ or ‘poor people’ because poor is another word which means inferior. ‘Poor’ tends to mean poor quality as well as some who is living in poverty. So I’ve tried to put ‘living in poverty’ in journal articles and try and talk about someone who is ‘living in poverty’ rather than poor, because of that association.
RL It’s difficult to always do it because of words and things, but it is so objectifying. It is saying that poverty is the only thing that identifies people living in poverty and in fact, another point in the book which makes political action very difficult, is that many people in poverty either don’t think of themselves as poor, because of the social stigma they don’t want to be labeled as poor.
Even if they did think of themselves as poor it is not central to their identity – it’s not “I think of myself as a poor person” – so to talk about them as ‘the poor’ like that’s the only thing that matters to them is incredibly disrespectful.
FB So when you talk about the agency of people in poverty, it isn’t in the same way as identity politics. You might have the women’s movement as identifying as women. You might have the disabled people’s movement identifying disabled people. But a poor people’s movement is not necessarily going to be wanting to push forward the identity of being poor.
One of the issues I thought you dealt with very well in the book was about the impact of this ‘othering’ process on the agency of people in poverty, and the emphasis you put on people’s agency despite all these obstacles.
RL I was talking about agency in terms of political agency and it’s very difficult. It’s not surprising that we don’t have movements of people in poverty because ‘proud to be poor’ is not a banner under which many people want to march.
This was an element which wasn’t completely new. Other social scientists had started to talk about agency but there had been a reluctance in social science generally because to talk about agency in terms of poverty has all too often been used by the political right as a way of blaming people in poverty i.e they are in poverty because of their own behavior. Many social scientists have been very wary of blaming the victim mentality.
The danger then though is that you treat people in poverty as passive cipher. I am trying to say that we have to pay regard to people in poverty. They make choices the same way everyone else does. But we also have to pay regard to the constraints in which they make choices i.e structure – as social scientists call it. We have to look at the interplay between agency and structure.
FB And that’s really complicated I think. One of the most dispiriting things is precisely that relationship between seeing people as victims and seeing people as villains. The label of dependency treats them as victims because they are dependent but that tends to turn over into blaming - where they are also seen as villains for being dependent on benefits. So I think that disentangling of agency and structure is a very complicated thing to do in poverty and I think it is done very well in the book.
One of the other things people find very difficult in terms of poverty debates is when people say poverty is just inequality. For example, when people say the poor will always be with us. In other words we’ll always have some sort of unequal society, so there will always be people at the bottom. But again the relationship between poverty and inequality is one of the issues you discuss very well in the book - inequality of income and class, but also other inequalities as well.
RL Yes I think it’s really important to put poverty in the context of inequality but it isn’t the same. With relative poverty there are overlaps with inequality because part of relative poverty is comparison with other people in the same society, but poverty adds to it the inability to participate in that society.
Theoretically it’s possible to have inequality without poverty if everyone can still participate, but it’s unlikely. The fact is that more unequal societies tend to have more poverty.
The other dimensions that I look at include the gender dimensions. That’s something both you and I have done a lot of work on. That takes us to look at what happens within households and families. It’s very relevant with what we’ve talked about in terms of agency. It links back to the idea of people being passive dependents if they are claiming benefit – actually, getting by on benefit or in poverty on a low income calls for huge skills and people devise complex strategies. They are exercising agency simply by getting by. It’s largely the women that do it and they bear the brunt of it.
It’s not only that women are more likely to be in poverty, it’s that they experience it in a particular gendered way and something which we’re both concerned about is how this is going to be made worse with the move to pay benefits monthly rather than fortnightly because that balancing act is going to be incredibly difficult.
FB We are concerned that the burden of the shift to the new monthly payment is likely to fall on women in low-income families in particular. Though it’s not a universal pattern, it is quite common in couples with children, for women to be responsible for looking after the everyday needs of the children – clothing, food and so on.
There are other inequalities as well, which criss-cross poverty and affect people’s experience of poverty.
RL Race, and again where the ‘othering’ associated with poverty is linked with racism. That can make living with poverty so much worse – disability, age, these all criss-cross with poverty.
FB In fact people at the moment are talking about disablist harassment actually having increased.
RL Indeed, and very much linked not to the disability as such – and this goes back to the ‘othering’ in terms of the political and public debate – but to people on benefit and disabled people claiming benefit being scroungers and so forth. Disability campaigners think that’s what’s leading to an increase in hate crime.
FB I believe you are going to rewrite the book, revise it, produce a new edition. I was wondering whether, given that the experience of the Commission informed your last edition, there were particular things you were thinking about emphasising this time which you put less emphasis on in the last edition?
RL there are two key things. One, I realised after I finished it, and interestingly no one picked it up, is that I didn’t put enough emphasis on insecurity. One of the characteristics of the experience of poverty is experiencing insecurity – both insecurity of income – and there is a lot of talk around the precariat and so forth – or of employment.
There is the insecurity of moving from benefit into paid work and how things can go wrong (which to be fair to the Government is trying to do something about that with its universal credit). Or the insecurity of the shocks - which people in development call external shocks –things like if your fridge breaks down and you’ve got no savings and if you’re budgeting week-to-week then how do you meet the cost?
That is something that really gnaws at people in poverty. That fear about even the smallest thing going wrong can be a major, major crisis for them so I want to speak more about that. In doing so I want to draw on something I didn’t talk about in the book in relation to agency but there’s been a lot more research done in this country now, and again drawing on development literature, and that’s drawing on the ‘Livelihoods’ approach.
I find this really interesting and it links in with the whole question of agency because instead, again, of looking at people as merely passive victims it focuses on how people make use of the different kinds of resources or assets that they’ve got to get by or try to get out of poverty. It is not just money, but social resources like the importance of social networks.
Policy at present is going to destroy many people’s social networks by making people have to move into cheaper accommodation in cheaper areas, so undermining the resources people draw on either to get by or to get out of poverty. So that’s one thing. I want to draw on the research that’s being done in this country (providing it’s not being misused to say all that matters is how people use the money and not how much money they’ve got).
The other area which is featured in the book but again there’s been more work done on this, is the human rights approach to poverty. One of the things I’ve been thinking about more is the way human rights can act as a mobilising tool for people in poverty – this perhaps addresses what we were talking about earlier as identifying as poor and marching under the banner of poverty.
In the States poor people have done so by marching under the economic and social human rights campaign. By helping people to think about themselves as rights holders and the notion of human dignity being absolutely central to human rights, that addresses the whole kind of ‘othering’ that we talked about and addresses the disrespect that people feel is shown towards them by wider society.
FB I thought one of the interesting things about what you said just now is that both of us have also been influenced not just by the Commission on Poverty, Participation and Power but by two other bodies of thought. One I would identify is an organisation called ATD Fourth World which I worked for, which sets extreme poverty in the context of the denial of fundamental human rights.
The other is, I suppose, international development. I’ve worked for Oxfam and you’ve worked with people from the Institute of Development Studies and found that the thinking from the world of international development – contrary to what you might think – is actually more focused on the less tangible aspects of poverty. So you might expect the international development activists to be focused on absolute poverty and starvation and the lack of material goods, but my experience is that they’ve been the one to have made me think about things like the right to a voice and things about attitudes between people in poverty and others and in particular things about power. I wondered if that had been influential and is going to be influential in the next edition of your book.
RL It has been influential. Indeed part of my developing thinking on human rights has been through attending a conference which ATD Fourth World organised and reading some more of their work.
In particular your point about participation and power. That, of course, takes us back to the Commission, because that was all about how to break down barriers to people in poverty participating in decisions and debates that affect their lives.
I think we talk about the global South learning from the global North but I think we’ve learnt a lot from the global South in terms of thinking about poverty and, as you say, the right to voice and the importance of that when thinking about both the concept of poverty and the politics of poverty.
This podcast was produced by Claire Cain
You may also be interested in our podcast on Asset Based Community Development which explores further the notion of agency in disadvantaged communities