The Politics of Poverty and the Silencing of Inequality

Poverty in the UK is set to rise as a result of current government policy, with the Institute for Fiscal Studies predicting that the number of children in relative poverty is set to increase from 2.6 million in 2009/10 to 3.3 million by 2020/21 (measuring income before housing costs), and that of working-age adults from 5.7 million in 2009/10 to 7.5 million by 2020/21. It would take a mendacious claim to deny that policy and inequality do not shape poverty. Yet in many senses this is what happens through the dominant politics of poverty in the UK, which constructs people in poverty as the cause of poverty.

The dominant public policy approach in the UK is to explain poverty through a behavioural analysis that individualises poverty and silences structural causes such as class, disability, race and gender. This is reflected in policies which are largely focused upon attempting to change the behaviour of the perceived deficits of people living in poverty – often through punishment and sanction. More often than not, such programmes (such as the ‘Troubled Families’ agenda) are devoid of an understanding of people’s everyday lives and how they are situated within the context of a deeply unequal society. This unjust politics can be seen through the government’s claim that the child poverty measure – defined as 60% of median income – is “deeply flawed” and that a better test would be to consider what they propose to be the “root causes of poverty, including family breakdown, debt and addiction”.

A further illustration of the politics of poverty can be seen in how the rise of social and economic insecurity is widely neglected by public policy. In a recent interview, the chief executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation Julia Unwin stated that “I don’t think the government have grasped the precariousness of modern life”. The focus of public policy is not on the experiences of people who alternate between low-paid, insecure jobs and periods out of work, nor the differential access to the labour market that face different members of society. Rather, it is centred on attempting to change what is perceived as the flawed characteristics of people out of work through a punitive welfare regime.

The contextual social factors that affect people’s lives are ignored, resulting in policy that focuses upon changing the behaviours of individuals in poverty, pushing the systemic factors that influence poverty and inequality even further into the silences of public discourse. In a brilliant article entitled ‘‘Benefits broods’: The cultural and political crafting of anti-welfare commonsense’, Tracey Jensen and Imogen Tyler identify how a ‘political economy of permanent state austerity has emerged’ that is driven by and legitimated through this public discourse, which acts in potent ways to create control and consent. The individualisation of blame and neglect of structural inequalities are fundamental aspects of this dynamic.

Although powerful, it is not inevitable and the consensus around the politics of poverty in the UK is becoming more unstable. As increasing numbers of people become touched by insecurity and more campaigns emerge that are led by people struggling to survive, the politics of poverty may under go a much needed transformation.

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