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Poverty: The Facts

by the Child Poverty Action Group.

Poverty: The Facts gives a comprehensive and objective picture of the extent of poverty and inequality in the UK. It shows why people become poor, who is most at risk of poverty and the consequences for individuals, local communities and the economy.This major survey is published by the Child Poverty Action Group.

The book certainly made me rethink assumptions which were not even at the forefront of my mind. I thought I knew what poverty was. This book made me see a much bigger picture:

“The idea that poverty means total destitution is now pretty much discredited. It seems these days to be generally accepted that a social context is necessary. What are the broad standards of social participation in a given society at a given time? It is in relation to these standards that we can start to identify and measure deprivations which can be said to constitute poverty.”(page 2)

Many definitions of poverty now see it as a denial of opportunity, choices and the capacity to participate in society. It’s not hard to figure out that this way of looking at poverty is not to the liking of those who (currently) hold power. As the report points out:
“If one reckons that human needs are everything which is required over time to enable the adult human to play a full part in her or his society, one can see how broad the issues really are.”(page 26)

The report looks at three different measures of poverty: the one favoured by CPAG is 50% of average income after housing costs, adjusted for family size; that of the Government, which uses a measure of 60% of median income; and the Poverty and Social Exclusion Survey which shows items people lack or cannot afford despite the fact that they are considered necessities by the majority.

I found the PSE approach the most interesting as above a certain base poverty is felt in relation to how others are doing around you. The PSE survey seeks to discover answers to questions such as:
Can you afford to keep your home decorated? … 14 per cent of adults couldn’t.
Can you afford to replace electrical goods? … 12 per cent couldn’t.
Can you afford to replace worn out furniture? … 12 per cent couldn’t.

The report points out:

“Whatever generally accepted method you use to measure it, poverty has grown significantly over recent years and by 1992/2000, between 13 and 14.5 million people in the UK – around a quarter of our society – were living in poverty.”

Even the way in which we talk about poverty can lead us (almost inevitably) to set conclusions and closes of our thinking about others. The book identifies seven such traps of language.

My assumptions were also challenged on the question of the relationship between race, discrimination and poverty; the picture here is far more complex than I had realised. The fact that the mean earnings of White males at £336 a week was much higher than Bangladeshi males at £191 didn’t surprise me. But I was intrigued by the fact that Caribbean women earn £267 and white women £244 (page 150).

Is an explanation based only on theories of discrimination enough to explain this second figure? Can discrimination explain the differences between different minority groups — say, why African/Asian males earn significantly more than Pakistani males? Can discrimination alone explain why African/Caribbean children are far more likely to be excluded from school than other minority groups (Chinese, Indian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani) (page 150, quoting Race Equality in Public Services: driving up standards and accounting for progress, Home Office 2000)?

I don’t think so; we need to look more at cultural factors and the structure of the labour market, while in schools we would need to look at the effects of peer pressure in different cultural groups amongst other factors.

This is a book full of facts, figures and new ideas; I recommend its purchase.

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