Things need to get better for people in poverty - the evidence is a good place to start

2nd Nov 2012

JRF's anti-poverty strategies for the UK will confront political stereotyping of poverty, says Tony Stoller.

For the best part of 40 years, I've been involved in, tried to influence, and been impressed by public policy making in the UK. I’ve been equally appalled too.

Here at the end of 2012, we can start to see that we are now in a new time. What we have now is a completely new paradigm for public policy-making, dominated and managed by what we can call the 'new elite'. It is a cohort of politicians, policy wonks, commentators, journalists and media owners, who both shape and comment on policy. They are the masters now, and they jointly take part in a symbiotic dance, which the public is encouraged to believe they are part of, but from which they are in reality consciously excluded. 

Add to that the extraordinary revolving doors between posts in Government, think-tanks, special advisers, media and regulation, and you have a new paradigm run by a 'new elite'. An example of this policy development failure is one dearest to the heart of us at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation: the debate about the nature of poverty in the UK.

It seems almost impossible these days to find valid public debate about the true issues of poverty. The language of 'benefits' and the 'welfare state' have become 'dog-whistle' words of implicit abuse. Politicians assert that housing benefit is designed for ‘those who lie in bed with the curtains drawn’. Those on benefits are ‘scroungers’, ‘benefits cheats’. 

The data shows that 61 per cent of children in poverty actually have working parents. Yet what we hear is the stigmatising of what the Victorians used to call the ‘undeserving poor’. We are led to believe that ‘benefits scroungers’ are represented by families where several generations of unemployment are commonplace. In fact there were only 30,000 families with two generations out of work across whole country. 

And that is surely a matter for shame and alarm about the failure of our economic system, rather than an indictment of those who suffer its consequences. 

In this way, public discourse is manipulated so that policy measures which penalise rather than help those in poverty are seen to be going with the grain of that public opinion. Can we turn this around? It is far from easy. But we simply must. How do we achieve that? Using data is a good start. 

It's encouraging that the availability of data is so widespread. At JRF, we publish the annual Monitoring of Poverty and Social Exclusion, a state of the nation report into poverty. There are many other data-providers, both within and outside government almost all of the material data is freely and widely available. Available it may be, but too much is either misused or not used at all. We must return to policy-making properly based on valid data; insist that that data is effectively open source and available un-packaged by opinion to those who wish to participate in the debate. 

We have just launched an initiative to be the catalyst for a comprehensive anti-poverty strategy for the UK. We are setting out to explore the root causes of poverty and the different available ways of responding to it. 

We hope to confront political stereotyping, which blames poverty either on the individual or structural inequality, confuses welfare with poverty and fails to make the basic connections which underpin a true appreciation of the common good. We are determined that this will be conducted according to the best principles, based on valid independent data and taking full account of genuine public views - and to provide credible solutions too.

The steady failure of policy-making over recent years leaves us no option other than to confront this and implement effective policy, not just talk about it. It is time for things to get better, and this is where we have to start.

This is an extract from Tony Stoller's lecture at Gresham College on Thursday, November 1, titled Policy making through a public prism.