Why we need big ideas to solve UK poverty

The UK – like many other developed nations – is badly in need of big ideas to solve poverty, says Claire Ainsley.

Today one in five people are living in poverty, which is just not right. The nature of poverty has changed over time, so the ways we tackle poverty must change too. And we need big ideas, because current approaches are not working. We have a shared responsibility to work together to solve poverty.

The case for big ideas to solve poverty

Of the 14 million people in poverty, JRF’s figures released last week show that 1.5 million people are destitute, which is the most severe form of poverty and means someone lacks two or more of the basic essentials in a month. In July, we will produce our tenth minimum income standard, and it typically shows that a third of the population live below what the public considers the necessary minimum to participate in society.

Latest figures from JRF’s state of the nation report show that child and pensioner poverty are beginning to rise, the first sustained increases in two decades. But rates of poverty in the UK were already far too high, and overall, they have not changed a great deal in 20 years. We need big ideas to solve UK poverty, because contemporary approaches have run out of steam. Technocratic solutions that do not face up to the nature and scale of the problem will fall short of rising to the challenge of the dynamic and shifting character of modern-day poverty.

The face of poverty used to be, typically, a pensioner; or someone out of work, living in social housing. That has changed. People in poverty today are now more likely to be working, trapped in expensive rented accommodation, and younger. At a time of record employment, millions of people are still locked in poverty, unable to reach a decent standard of living and build a better life for themselves and their families. And the gains we thought were being made in reducing pensioner poverty now look as though they may be in jeopardy. Unless serious action is taken to address the problem, poverty is forecast to rise over the next few years.

There are social, cultural and political reasons why we need big ideas to solve poverty, as well as economic. People in poverty are less likely than those on higher incomes to say they are interested in politics, less likely to vote, less likely to identify with any of the political parties, and less likely to trust politicians. One voter in Oldham said: “We are only consulted during election time when the politicians want to win voters, otherwise it’s the same people involved in the decision-making processes and politicians only move in their own circles.” Another said: “I feel I have no voice in society. I don’t have a concept of my voice being heard.”

It is not surprising that people who are less well-off feel less represented in politics than those who are better off, because they are less well represented. The concerns of the affluent dominate our public life. We have seen the first political upset arising from this sense of marginalisation during the vote to leave the European Union, and it may not be our last if the concerns that drove millions on low incomes to vote that way are not addressed.

A vision for a UK without poverty

Big ideas need vision, imagination and belief. We need to know what we are aiming for, and any strategy needs measures by which its success can be judged. In JRF’s strategy to solve poverty in the UK we said that by 2030 the UK should be a country where:

  • no one is ever destitute
  • less than one in ten of the population are in poverty at any one time, and
  • nobody is in poverty for more than two years.

At the moment, there is no will and no plan from any of the political parties to meet this challenge. But the forces of social change are not just about what governments or the opposition of the day do. They are about the ideas, arguments and actions that citizens, thinkers and movements put forward.

Ideas matter in the fight against poverty – the ideas we have about the kind of society we need in order to live without poverty, and our ideas about the solutions to poverty.

But they also matter because underneath ideas about solutions to poverty are assumptions about what we think poverty is, why it occurs and what we think the morally right approach to poverty is.

When JRF produced our strategy to solve UK poverty in 2016, setting out the actions that governments, businesses, communities and citizens should take to tackle poverty, we also produced a comprehensive analysis of poverty called ‘UK poverty: causes, costs and solutions’ because we wanted to tell the evidence-based story of modern poverty and what to do about it. It is not enough to set out ideas about solving poverty. We know we have to address notions of what poverty is, who is in poverty, and why; and confront the barriers to its eradication.

Current approaches are running out of steam

The dominant solution has been to assert that work is the best route out of poverty, but without tackling the underlying problems with the labour market, this has been little more than a mantra for many people. Too many jobs lack the security, pay or hours to make them a viable route to a decent, secure life.

The second big idea that is running out of steam is the assumption that unfettered markets will provide answers to our societal and economic challenges. Markets have provided huge benefits – continuing high employment, cheap goods and popular access to innovative technology – but it is clear that from the labour market to housing, markets are failing millions of people and the Government is too reluctant to break with decades of laissez-faire approaches to the market and encourage positive interventions. This dislocation with the impact of global markets has caused huge social and cultural challenges too.

The third big idea that is proving deeply problematic is that risk can be shifted from the state onto households and individuals who didn’t have much to start with. Without tackling the underlying drivers of welfare spending, such as the soaring cost of housing, which has driven up the Housing Benefit bill, or a labour market, which locks people out of finding and sustaining decent work. Poverty today reflects society’s inequalities: people who are disabled are more likely to be in poverty than people who don’t have someone with a disability in the family; people who are from a minority ethnic background – particularly Bangladeshi or Pakistani – are much more likely than those who are ethnically White to be in poverty. So any big ideas to solve poverty need to tackle the existing systemic inequalities that are causing poverty. At its worst, this approach of driving down the benefits bill without tackling the underlying drivers has pushed more people into destitution.

One of the big ideas being promoted to address inequality is the creation of a universal basic income. Whilst universal basic income might be attractive to some on both ends of the political spectrum, and opens up a debate that at least encourages ambitious thinking about the role of the state and individuals, JRF is unconvinced this is an effective answer to poverty. The current ideas suggest that it would be untargeted, without recognising the pre-existing inequalities that mean people’s starting points widely vary. It would also be expensive, and there are more effective ways to solve poverty, such as investing in skills and regional economic development as a more productive answer to challenges of automation.

Big ideas to solve UK poverty

  1. The creation of inclusive economies, with a shift to more productive, higher-wage jobs, backed up by serious investment in developing economic hubs outside London and the South East. Businesses and employers should be incentivised to become active citizens in their local communities. Many forward-thinking firms are already taking action to become responsible businesses; for example, Greggs has changed its shift patterns to help staff balance caring and working, as well as giving them flexibility and time to train or improve their skills. But too many others still operate outdated models based on low wages, no progression opportunities and high staff turnover. Forward-thinking cities are already putting inclusive growth at their heart. For example, West Midlands Combined Authority has just launched an Inclusive Growth Unit, driven by the authority, which brings together 12 local authorities, 3 local enterprise partnerships, together with a range of partners including JRF, Public Health England, and regional growth partners. This is a practical example of how the state, the private and public sectors can be brought together so that everyone benefits from a thriving economy.
  2. A living rent, linking rents to local earnings, to tackle rising housing costs. Poverty in the private rented sector has nearly doubled in a decade, and most of those are in families where someone is working. Housing is crucial to people’s living standards and their security. We need a new generation of genuinely affordable homes – 80,000 in England alone every year - and introduce a ‘Living Rent’, linking rents to local earnings. Just as the ‘living wage’ has had such resonance, so too should a ‘living rent’ become a principle housing costs are set by.
  3. The goal of social security and employment services should be higher earnings, not just to move people off benefits altogether, which can result in destitution. If social security is to become a route out of poverty, we need to radically rethink how people can be treated with dignity and respect. We need far more flexible and adaptable work so that people with health needs and disabilities who could work are supported to do so. And for those who cannot work, they need support at a level that is going to prevent poverty. We cannot cut our way out of the current welfare bill, we need to make work something more people can do and break the link between poverty and disability.
  4. Above all, we need to create solutions alongside people who have lived experience of poverty. One of the reasons previous ‘big ideas’ have not dented poverty levels is that people who are directly affected have been ‘othered’ and marginalised from creating solutions. At times, public policy has treated people in poverty as passive recipients or worse, and the underlying assumptions have been downright hostile. Rather than try and myth-bust our way out of this hostility towards people in poverty, we want to find ways to connect with the more productive ways people think about poverty, to move them to think and act more positively. JRF has just released extensive research on the best way to connect with the public about poverty, which shows that we have to communicate why the public should care; and finds that the ‘frames’ of using social justice and compassion together are the most effective in persuading people to care and to act. We are now working with people including those with direct experience and big organisations to change the way we talk about poverty and use more productive narratives to effect change. And this work goes beyond stories and narratives, and is about bringing about a transfer of power to people who have direct experience of poverty. There has been no social movement that has not had people with direct experience at its heart, and the move to solve poverty is no different.

We can solve UK poverty

One of the questions we should ask ourselves is how will historians write up this period we are living in? Because we have a chance to shape it. We can choose to accept the status quo, or wring our hands. Or we can do something to change it, and go with the grain of new, progressive ideas that build a society and economy where everyone has decent living standards and a good place to live.

Our founder Joseph Rowntree was not a politician, but a pioneer of social reform through his practical contributions as a successful industrialist and employer and campaigns for reform. His son, Seebohm Rowntree, is responsible for making one of the biggest contributions to understanding poverty in British social history by using his household surveys to demonstrate that if poverty could happen in York, it could happen anywhere; and that poverty was not primarily the result of individual failure.

Some of the old myths about poverty remain stubbornly persistent. But by taking inspiration from the great thinkers, activists and reformers, and being part of a movement alongside people with lived experience of poverty, we can translate these ideas into action.