‘How do we solve poverty if all your jobs depend on it?’

Recent books by Barry Knight and by Alan Marsh and colleagues have shown that efforts to end poverty in low-income neighbourhoods in the UK have failed to make much progress. Darren McGarvey, or Rapper Loki, in his book Poverty Safari criticises the well-meaning but fundamentally misguided behaviour of the poverty industry which behaves ‘much like an imperial power’ and is not tuned into what communities really need. In this article, while Barry Knight looks at the failure of anti-poverty government programmes in the UK, the article provides a universal lens to anti-poverty government, aid and development programmes. How can we, in the UK and elsewhere where income inequalities are enormous, rethink approaches to fighting poverty that truly end poverty rather than perpetuating programmes that create dependency?

Barry Knight

The title of this article is taken from a quotation from Poverty Safari by Darren McGarvey – better known as the rapper Loki.

Based on his experience of growing up in poverty in a Glasgow housing estate, he criticises the well-meaning but fundamentally misguided behaviour of the poverty industry which parachutes itself into run-down areas:

‘This sector … behaves much like an imperial power; poorer communities are viewed as primitive cultures that need to be modernised, retooled and upskilled … on the assumption that people in these communities don’t have any ideas of their own.’ (p 97)

Alien agendas prepared by remote institutions with middle-class values lead to:

‘… potentially life changing work falling hopelessly out of sync with grassroots needs and aspirations … .’ (p 98)

He suggests that the poverty industry is driven by the needs of the organisations delivering the work, rather than the needs of the people served:

‘Truth be told, much of the work carried out in deprived communities is as much about the aims and objectives of the organisations facilitating it as it is about local needs. And notably, the aim is rarely to encourage self-sufficiency. Rather the opposite, each engagement and intervention creating more dependency on outside resources and expertise, perpetuating the role of the sector as opposed to gradually reducing it.’ (p 98)

Hence the question posed by the title: ‘How do we solve poverty if all your jobs depend on it?’

Darren McGarvey, author of Poverty Safari

Persistent failure

Given the mismatch between what is being supplied and what local people need, it is small wonder that efforts to end poverty in low-income neighbourhoods, starting in earnest with the Social Needs Act 1969, have failed to make much progress. A century ago, Sidney and Beatrice Webb described ‘cities of the poor’ and they can still be found in such places as Hendon in Sunderland, North Belfast and Pollok (where Darren grew up), as well as in many other places across the UK.

To illustrate the problem, let us look at the city of Sunderland. The following chart shows the child poverty rates for each of the wards:

The most striking feature of the chart is the significant variation between wards. For the regeneration industry, however, there is another finding that signals bad news. The ward that contains the highest poverty rate – Hendon at 42.5 per cent – is the ward that was the focus of the ambitious ‘New Deal for Communities Programme’ that ran from 2001 to 2011 to ‘close the gap between 39 poorest places and the rest’. It clearly didn’t.

A recent book by Alan Marsh and colleagues from the Child Poverty Action Group shows the extent of the problem of poverty. It cites the shocking prediction by the Institute of Fiscal Studies that more than 5 million children will live in poverty by the end of the current decade. Child poverty in the North East of England is set to rise by 12 per cent, so the prospects for Hendon are unlikely to improve.

In a rich modern country, it is shameful that so many people endure the spoiled lives that poverty brings. The statistics should – by rights – energise us to review how we organise our society. Things are plainly going wrong.

Poor programmes

One of the areas we need to look at is how official anti-poverty programmes are faring. Rethinking Poverty argues that government programmes fail because they typically depend on transfers of resources using measures developed by the producer, rather than transformations of power using measures developed by the receiver. The model tends to cast people on low incomes as a deficit that needs to be addressed, rather than as an asset that is part of the solution.

There is no more vivid illustration of the way that government programmes have been designed as second-class solutions for second-class people than the film I Daniel Blake. This shows a ‘cold bureaucracy’ in action, with rule-bound, inflexible behaviour that takes all power and dignity away from a 59-year-old carpenter who, following a heart attack, is seeking benefits for the first time in his life. It is unsurprising that the result was widespread anger about the dehumanising effects of the social security apparatus.

What is commonly missing from state action is any sense of how people feel. An emphasis on projects, rationed resources, detailed procedures, specific deliverables and inflexible evaluation means that the needs of the system outweigh the needs of people.

This is Darren McGarvey’s point. He says that to make progress everyone must examine who they are and how they are behaving. For the poverty industry, this should be a wake-up call. My answer is that we are not cutting it. For most of the past 10 years, poverty statistics stood still but now they are worsening and predicted to get worse – much worse. We need to do things differently.

Enter the ‘P’ word

One thing that people in poverty do not have is power.

In their book, Scarcity: Why having too little means so much, Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir show how poverty alters people’s mindsets so that they have less agency. Doing things to people does not increase their sense of agency – indeed it takes it away from them. Organisers from the US-based Industrial Areas Foundation have a maxim which is ‘never do anything for anyone that they are capable of doing for themselves’. Otherwise, you are diminishing people’s sense of themselves and diminishing their power. Doing things to people introduces a structural gulf – an ‘othering’ – that makes it seem that people in poverty are somehow a different species. Treating people as ‘something other’ increases the sense of social exclusion because they are not brought in as part of the solution.

The essence of successful power relationships is to share power, not to dispense it through the largesse of some agency. This has important implications for how we regenerate areas like Pollok and Hendon. People must do it for themselves. People are competent and we must trust them to do things that are in their own interest, rather than doing things for them.

Bringing the poor in

In recent years, there has been growing recognition that the poor must be at the table. The Scottish Poverty Truth Commission has led the way. It states that ‘poverty will only be addressed when those with experience of it first hand are at the heart of the process’. Its work has led to the development of truth commissions across a wider area.

Arundhati Roy: ‘There’s no such thing as the voiceless. There are only the deliberately silenced or the preferably unheard.’

The Webb Memorial Trust also contributed in a small way by supporting a project led by Ruth Patrick, who brought together ATD, Dole Animators and Thrive to reflect on what they want from their society. It funded BRAP to give voice to people from various black and minority ethnic groups, and it funded extensive work to enable children from five low-income neighbourhoods to describe what it’s like to live on a low income and to write a manifesto that was presented in Parliament.

But is this enough?

There remains the question whether this is enough. Darren McGarvey draws attention to the tokenism of this approach. Although talking about his experience of poverty seemed to be acceptable to people, discussing the reasons and suggesting solutions frequently irritated them. Here is a selection of quotations from his book:

‘It was as if the only thing that qualified my opinion was the fact that I had been poor. The second I wandered off that topic people started shuffling their papers and things got awkward. It seems my criticism was often deemed not to be constructive enough.’ (p 122)

‘My story, which I have been conditioned to retell like a party piece, got me so far and then people became wary of me, aggravating my sense of rejection and exclusion. … I was learning that even the harshest childhood would not give you a free pass to cast a critical eye on the structures around you.’ (pp 122-3)

‘Queries such as “Who makes the decisions about your budget?” and “How do we solve poverty if all your jobs depend on it?” were making people around me nervous.’ (p 121)

These comments raise a question about whether there is any genuine interest in stories of the poor beyond a kind of voyeurism. During the 1990s, Deepa Narayan and her colleagues mounted an extensive listening exercise called Voices of the Poor. Published through the United Nations, this gave expression to the opinions of 60,000 people living in poverty. Although paying lip service to this work, the development industry has continued a top-down path ever since. There is still almost no involvement of local people in the delivery of programmes, which are increasingly administered by private consultants.

So, does speaking truth to power work? Maybe not, because it depends on whether power is listening. Arundhati Roy says: ‘There’s no such thing as the voiceless. There are only the deliberately silenced or the preferably unheard.


What is needed is a full examination of the concept of power – something that is gaining ground as a social movement across the globe with the hashtag #ShiftThePower, as described in a recent Alliance article.

The idea of power is much more important than policy or practice when it comes to ending poverty. Power has to be shared with local people in a meaningful way before we can run development programmes or projects successfully. Otherwise they are a waste of time. Unless people have a stake in building their own communities, and in developing their own assets and capacities, they will be in the same place at the end of the programme as they were at the beginning.

For funders, this entails building trust with local people and investing in what they want, rather than implementing their own policies. This involves inverting the power pyramid so that local people can build their own institutions. The Global Fund for Community Foundations has, through an analysis of what works in building such local community philanthropy, identified three key variables that measure success:

  • Assets
  • Capacities
  • Trust

A recent publication How community philanthropy shifts power: What donors can do to make that happen identifies how funders can change their behaviour.

Such an approach chimes with the suggestions in Rethinking Poverty, to develop a programme of triple devolution. First, national resources should be allocated to local authorities. Second, local authorities should allocate significant resources to community groups. Third, community groups should ensure that power is shared with young people, who have the energy and ideas to transform their neighbourhoods. This would be a radical programme to shift power.

National action

Devolution is not the whole answer. There is still a need for top-down state action because there are many things that local people cannot do for themselves. Central government needs to take charge of the large structural issues in society, particularly by developing a fairer taxation and benefits system that addresses the underlying money flows that cause the continuing problem of poverty – one that will remain until we address these structural issues.

If we begin at both ends, bottom up and top down, we can begin to answer the question in the title of this article, which means seeing the job of ending poverty as more important than collecting a salary for actions that guarantee its persistence.

Barry Knight is the author of Rethinking Poverty: What makes a good society? and former director of the Webb Memorial Trust.

This post was originally published 0n https://www.rethinkingpoverty.org.uk/