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Exploring the Meaning of Poverty

Author: Simon Duffy

It was an honour to be invited to be part of a conference organised by Bolsover CVP - Life in Bolsover Today: Bolsover District Poverty Audit 2015-16. It was a fascinating day where we were able to put together local people’s experiences of living in poverty and share different perspectives on poverty.

A group of young people from Bolsover produced this amazing film - getting to the heart of the poverty as its experienced in everyday life:

Heather Rabett also explained the findings of their report. You can read the report here, but overall what the report explains are the day-to-day indignities created by poverty. Here are just a few things that stood out for me:

a) The Bedroom Tax has pushed many people into debt and into using food banks; but even worse is the sense that people now cannot feel secure in their own homes or in their own communities. Government tells communities that they, rather than the state, should be taking care of each other. But then the Bedroom Tax tells people that they do not really belong to that community if they cannot afford to live in their house once their children have left home.

b) Many people feel that they cannot have the time to contribute to their community, because they are working too hard. Low paid work, with insecure employment rights, demanding long hours is seen by some as the route out of poverty. But when you enter such work you can end up losing out on previous securities (however minimal) and too tired to do anything but come home to rest and sleep.

c) The paradoxes of poverty are sharp. For instance, people often won’t take advantage of the lower price of paying for their heating by Direct Debit. For they do not have confidence that they won’t be driven into debt by their heating bills. So they prefer to ‘pay-as-they-go, knowing that they simply cannot afford to always keep their house warm.

Poverty isolates and divides us. It leaves us thinking we are not good enough and we are too poor to spend time with friends or family.

Babs and Ricky Barson sang a great song which offered an elegy for all the shops and community places that had been lost over the decades. People’s sense of poverty is not always expressed in the form of money. Instead poverty can feel like your community dying or being replaced with some alien and artificial alternative - your local pub becomes a Wetherspoons.

Mandy Chambers, a public health leaders and Chair of Bolsover Partnership reminded us the that poverty and inequality are murderous:

  • Life expectancies can differ by more than 8 years, depending on whether you live in a wealthy or a poor neighbourhood
  • Over 200,000 deaths per year are linked to poverty - that’s 500 deaths per year.
  • Ill health creates poverty and poverty creates ill health
  • Inverse Care Law, first expressed by Tudor Hart, also describes the failure of the healthcare system to organise itself around people’s needs: “…the availability of good medical care tends to vary inversely with the need for it in the population.”
  • Poverty also undermined the wider determinants of good health: education, welfare, housing, environment, employment, income, transport, community safety and access to services.

Steve Ralf explained the impact of Super Kitchen, a scheme to teach communities to cook and share food together. In a funny way, although this initiatives is a symptom of Austerity it also beautifully represented people’s ongoing need for company - company meaning to share bread - literally 'one who breaks bread with another', based on Latin com- 'together with' + panis ‘bread'.

Bev Parker of Financial Action and Advice Derbyshire described clearly how real a problem debt or financial fragility was for most of us. We’ve created a system where people are forced to live in or on the edge of debt - with no security - and then penalised when they slip into the red.

The question I was frequently asked was - What can we do?

The speaker from the JRF offered one path out of poverty, called Inclusive Growth. This means connecting up the need for economic development with the need to ensure poverty and social needs are also met. Of course this must be a good idea. But the worry I was left with was that this seemed to assume the state was a benign force in people’s lives. So, all that is now needed is for Government to better understand how to do economic growth right. I am not convinced that this is our problem.

My own talk stressed the way in which inequality has grown radically over a 40 year period, driven by political decisions:

  • Cutting salaries, employment rights and trade union influence
  • Cutting benefits and increasing taxes on the poor
  • Centralising spending decisions in Whitehall

There is much talk of markets and privatisation, and that is certainly part of what has changed. But, whatever political party is in power, public expenditure has remained high, while more money is spent on services, and less money is spent on redistributing resources from rich to poor. In other words, we seem to care less about poverty and inequality. Instead we push money into public services where the beneficiaries are the middle classes (both as employees and recipients).

I argued that we must start to see poverty as political and we must start to connect the citizen to the local community and to effective political pressure.

I suppose my sense is that we cannot expect the system to save us from poverty or Austerity. It hasn’t and it won’t. As it stands the political system merely seems to make a judgement about how much pain people can bear without making too much of a fuss.

But this means making a fuss is a vital civic duty.

Yet we must make a fuss in a way that also looks to what we’ve learned over the long-term. We must be wise. For even if the political system did care about poverty and local communities it would inevitably solve the wrong problems in the wrong way. It is too removed from local communities. It does not know the assets and resources of the local community.

So we must make a fuss, while also building the local community capacity that we really need.

Colin Hampton, of Derbyshire Unemployed Worker’s Centre set out the Welfare Charter, set out the case for the Welfare Charter. He explained that the welfare reforms, low benefits, sanctions and the whole bureaucratic system is designed to weaken the bargaining position of working people. He described the importance of active political strategies around this great slogan:

“United we bargain, divided we beg!”

He stressed an important recent initiative, for Unite has now started Unite Community. To me this seems one of the most hopeful initiatives of our times. [£26 per year to join Unite Community - but even this cost can be covered by sponsorship from a working member.] In the past unions have allowed their vision to become rather limited by the short-term interests of their members and of particular industries. While understandable this has also become a major problem, for it has allowed unions to be portrayed as too ‘partial’ or narrow.

We need to open our arms to each other.

The creation of the welfare state and earlier systems to combat poverty and inequality were developed by unions, churches and local community groups. We must harness these forces again if we are to push back on poverty.

One of the most moving talks was by Stephanie Furborough who eloquent described what living in poverty means to her. For two and a half years she and her husband had lived in a van, being told they were not technically homeless. It took an independent advocate to help them get the home they needed. Once she found herself a job, she also found herself in more debt, because of the craziness of the benefit system. Stephanie did not experience the welfare state as if was really there to help her or her husband. The welfare state, for many people, seems more like an alien force.

But Stephanie’s final message was exactly right:

“Together we can change this!”

I’d like to thank Bolsover CVP for organising such a powerful event.

The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.

Exploring the Meaning of Poverty © Simon Duffy 2016.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.


Simon Duffy

Simon Duffy



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