Reclaiming the debate on poverty

In reading articles about economic poverty I am struck by the fact that most discussion focuses on the ways that spending power and material choice are limited for people with low incomes. In this paper I want to focus on the effects of poverty on the individual. I have not approached this as an academic subject, but have drawn on my experience of working in mental health, and the experiences of members of my family who work in public services. I feel this is a very relevant discussion for our times, and one which fits well with the aims of Progressive Pulse, with its commitment to a society that benefits the many not the few, the equal value of all children, objective truth and new thinking.

During the 1980s I noticed something had changed among the students who I supervised on placement. In case discussions about the problems faced by our clients the students no longer mentioned poverty, which was in fact a huge factor in most cases. When questioned, they said that poverty was not something covered on their courses. Perhaps this began as a well-intentioned change made to avoid stigmatising poorer people; or a deliberate move to seize the narrative, for whatever reason, poverty dropped out of the training curriculum, and with it went much understanding of people’s daily lives and the factors affecting people’s health and resilience. Things have moved on apace; the belief that poverty is a self-inflicted choice and that poor people can choose to help themselves has been largely assimilated into our culture.1 A new discussion of poverty is well overdue.

The material effects of poverty are multiple, interlinked and self-reinforcing, creating a whole range of outcomes in which poorer families are disadvantaged. From birth, with babies in poorer households having a lower birth weight and higher mortality, children born into poverty are disadvantaged. Low food quality and lack of facilities to prepare food, for example in homeless accommodation, can lead to poorer health. Substandard housing conditions, such as damp rooms, affect health as children develop, and poorer families tend to be placed in areas where there are few community facilities and shops, increasing their isolation and limiting their choices. Such areas are also less safe, and children in poorer families have more accidents. Poor families may be exploited by loan sharks, targeted by gangs and subject to friction in the community, creating constant stress.

Due to lack of money, their home environment, for children in low-income families, is likely to have fewer age-appropriate toys, books and sources of stimulation. Parents may be preoccupied with working long hours, or with the stresses caused by their situation, and have less time to spend with children. These factors lead to delays in reaching milestones for the developing child, for example in fine motor skills and language development. Poor children are not any less loved than children in well-off families, but this does not compensate for the range of disadvantages caused by poverty. The effects can be seen in school, with young children from poorer backgrounds showing more behavioural issues and attention-seeking, having a shorter attention span, being less able to motivate themselves, showing anger rather than problem-solving when confronted with difficulties, and having a narrow range of personal experience to draw on compared to their peers. All of this is likely to contribute to lower attainment, and also to a lack of resilience, self- confidence and personal resourcefulness.

Poverty is so much more than lack of money; it encompasses the resulting poverty of choice, experience, personal development and opportunity. Poor children internalise a sense of being worth less than others, as they quickly realise they do not have the same advantages or ‘things’ as their peers. Among teenagers considering career choices, for example, those from low-income families are less likely to have given thought to a career and the steps to be taken towards it, and more likely to reject suggestions from professionals because they feel they are ‘not clever enough.’ They may say it’s not worth studying a particular subject because they’re not good at it, which they tend to put down to the teacher not liking them; they are fearful of taking the risk of personal responsibility and aiming high. They have narrower horizons than their better-off peers and fewer positive role models; where they have made a career choice – often the same as that of another family member – they can be very fixed on that and will not consider other options. This kind of poverty among individuals results in a huge waste of potential talent for society.

Young people affected by poverty enter adulthood often with a pervading feeling of emptiness stemming from a lack of self-worth, sometimes expressed in anger or disaffection. Marketing knows that sense of emptiness well, and aims to exploit it with things we are told will make us happy. However it is a bottomless pit, and the treats we all like to motivate ourselves with are followed in poorer households by crippling debt as poorer consumers are always unable to sustain the things that society tells us we must have to be successful. More and more time is spent on the minutiae of daily life, as ways of surviving have to be found; leaving little time for aspirations and ambitions. The accumulated factors mentioned above also create a poverty of resilience, with those affected less able to overcome problems in their lives because they have fewer personal resources and limited experience of success.

‘A history of poverty, with its timeless social stigmas, can be one of the hardest things to overcome that an individual will encounter in their lifetime. The psychological and spiritual repercussions of poverty are exacting and insidious in ways people don’t perceive. Our ability to recognize the iron grip of internalized shame that poverty creates, is a difficult process of denial and reluctant hard-won acceptance. . . . The pain and survivors’ guilt many of us feel, of the mental illness that seized several of our siblings is currently one very real aspect of the price some of us were forced to pay. A price that levelled its impact on the struggles that a life of poverty inflicted on us.’ 2

Poverty can be cyclical, with children limited in their turn by the deficits experienced by their parents and no way of breaking out of their situation, so the effects can become entrenched and quite extreme: for example, families where the children have not attended school because the parents do not know how to use an alarm clock or public transport; where children are undernourished because the parents have no experience of preparing a meal other than a sandwich or breakfast cereal. It is hard to imagine what life is like for people who have not had the opportunity to learn the most basic of skills which most of us take for granted; or the shame they feel and the lengths they go to to try to hide these deficits.

Of course, not everyone who has experienced poverty is affected in the same way, and many people make good lives for themselves even with the odds stacked against them, at least until they hit a crisis. However, safety nets and helping hands for those in difficulty have become increasingly scarce, particularly in the past 7 years, with the withdrawal of youth and community centres, family support centres, Sure Start, Connexions, and so many other sources of support. Along with local charities, many of these offered early intervention in a way which was non-stigmatising and open to everyone, so that help could be offered before families and individuals descended into crisis. The cost of this loss of support is huge, for society as well as for the individuals involved, as the UK spends far more than its European neighbours on preventable problems such as crime, family breakdown, mental ill-health and drug abuse.3

To break this spiral, which wastes the lives of increasing numbers of people in our society, we need to:

  • reclaim the discussion about poverty, its costs to our society, and what can be done to address it
  • reject the notion that poverty is a choice, and promote proper understanding
  • assert the value and the need to support or reinstate measures that help individuals and families to change their lives: for example, fair and adequate wages and and welfare benefits; free school meals; children’s centres which are free of charge; community support facilities; credit unions; student grants; careers services.

Further reading

‘A woman, who had survived a childhood landscape of terror and the despair of being shuttled between relatives as a foster child, unloved and unwanted. A woman who wanted nothing more than to create a happy sprawling family, to cancel out her own lonely history as an abused and neglected only child but of a mentally ill mother. In my efforts to save my dignity, my pride, and any semblance of future ambition I might entertain, I would remember only the happy times of our family.’4

Geoff Plant
Edited by Dory Dickson
with contributions from :-
Michelle Plant – Careers Service Brent Taylor – Primary School Teacher

1 Much of this change can be attributed to the seeds sown by the American theorist Charles Murray, who argued that dependency on welfare benefits is a lifestyle choice associated with laziness, drug and alcohol abuse, criminality, etc. Whilst having no basis in fact, this theme has been constantly expounded by the popular right-wing press and media.

2 Theresa G Kennedy – Essay on Poverty, 2006

3 A detailed analysis is found in Action for Children and the New Economic Foundation, Backing the Future: why investing in children is good for us all, 2009

4 Because the reality was too painful to recall. Kennedy, 2006


  1. Jeni Parsons aka havantaclu -

    The Joseph Rowntree Foundation in York do a lot of work on poverty in the United Kingdom, but this is a very useful contribution, Geoff, because it focuses on the mental health problems caused, which can lead, as you’ve said, to generational continuation of poverty.

    A lot of people also believe – besides the belief that poverty is a personal choice – that poverty only truly exists in what used to be called the Third World. I’ve seen poverty in Kenya, and can say that there isn’t much difference between, say, a shanty ‘town’ outside Nairobi and some of the poorer decayed neighbourhoods in our major cities, in terms of facilities and assistance available.

    Except for one thing. The shanty dwellers of Nairobi all have hope – hope that they, and especially their children, would one day lead the life of the wabenzi (owners of Mercedes cars!) in Muthaiga (up-market suburb). In this country, the words at the gate to Dante’s Inferno should be engraved on the signposts at the entrances to some of our towns: ‘ogni speranza lasciate, voi qu’entrate’ – ‘abandon hope, all you who enter here’.

    It’s something that has become engrained in our culture – this despair – and it needs to be addressed through the minds of the people who are suffering. Religion used to help for some in the past – ‘pie in the sky when you die’ – but it’s a present hope, not a future one, that is needed – and materialism isn’t any sort of answer, as you’ve so rightly pointed out.

    Do you have an answer? Because I don’t see any political party that is offering one!

    1. Geoff -

      Thanks Jeni I agree with all that you say.

      I referred to the changes that took place in the 1980s; my belief is that those changes were part of the rebranding exercise of what we now commonly refer to as neo-liberalism and its narrative on being personally responsible for everything in your life.

      My suggestion would be to reinstate an integrated study of poverty into professional courses such as social work, psychology, medical, nursing, teaching and child care, housing and economics, with the subject matter linking so that each discipline understands something of the others, in relation to poverty; my own training did just that.

      I’m certain from the research that the last Labour government’s policies were having a discernible impact on childhood poverty and I would welcome the return of those, especially Sure Start and Connexions services, free tuition fees, ‘joined-up’ working between services, and listening to service users. The LP manifesto goes a little way towards that and is very welcome.

      I also think changing the mind set and current narrative away from people as “economic units” needs tackling, moving towards a social integration model.

      I agree that if hope is removed then life is made that much more difficult.

  2. Peter May -

    Excellent piece. Should be compulsory reading for every prospective MP!
    Indeed the number of Conservative MP’s without an inheritance is vanishingly small – the only one who springs to mind is David Davis but when he grew up in a council house there was security and no bedroom tax.
    The idea that “More and more time is spent on the minutiae of daily life, as ways of surviving have to be found; leaving little time for aspirations and ambitions” is part of the reason for the political disengagement that is so prevalent. I know that surviving may not be as fraught as it was for the Jarrow Hunger Marchers but that is counteracted by the lack of community solidarity these days.
    If I recall correctly Westminster council tries to move its homeless to Wolverhampton. Which effectively means they are starting new lives in very difficult circumstances and on their own.

    If one then considers the acquisition of wealth not to be about greed but to be all about increasing security for yourself and your family then it necessarily follows that poverty is all about increasing insecurity.
    In failing to minimise poverty we ensure insecurity is far greater than it could be and in so doing we not only make individual lives more difficult, we store up problems for their future, our future and the future of society.
    The economic indictment for austerity is now blindingly obvious and this is the concomitant social and mental health indictment, which ought to be equally plain to anyone who thinks.

    1. Geoff -

      Thanks Peter,
      You raise some interesting points.
      I think there’s an argument to say poverty today can, in different ways, be more difficult to live with than in the time of the Jarrow marchers. You rightly refer to community and the cleansing of people to other areas from the places they grew up in to areas where they have no family connections, no contacts, speak with a different accent and so on and the children are picked on and bullied. They are simply cast adrift. The old communities stood together in common and shared poverty.
      The poverty of today more often than not brings isolation as an added and very problematic extra, as if being poor wasn’t difficult enough.

  3. Grace Sutherland -

    “My suggestion would be to reinstate an integrated study of poverty into professional courses such as social work, psychology, medical, nursing, teaching and child care, housing and economics, with the subject matter linking so that each discipline understands something of the others, in relation to poverty; my own training did just that. “

    This seems like an excellent idea and I’m sure it would bear much fruit but what of those who won’t ever take those courses and who have no interest in the poor?
    There seems to be a real ‘poverty of empathy’ from most actually, especially when we make a goal and virtue out of accumulation. We talk about the state of the roads in this country and there’s not a day that goes by when I’m not thinking that our attraction to Amazon etc must be to blame for a great deal of it!

    Politics can only do so much, but I really think a world view of ‘enoughness’ has to emerge on a personal level. I’m not sure how we can make that happen, unless it’s by each and every one of us having an individual change of heart. To me that comes about by having a compassionate practice in your life. I cannot see a sustainable world view emerging that does not put the Golden Rule at the heart of it.

    1. Geoff -

      I think this is a question for everyone to answer Grace. In the various groups in our lives, professionally and otherwise, how do we raise the issue of how to change this apparent lack of understanding and empathy so prevalent in today’s UK?
      I think there are many examples of the golden rule in our daily lives, simple acts of kindness, but I agree our focus has shifted to the material rather than the social or spiritual. The public response to
      the two homeless men in Manchester, after the bombing, for me showed the compassion that still lies within ordinary folk to human crisis.
      My theme is that the narrative has been stolen and replaced by the self-interested voice of business and finance. Through constant repetition of their message via the media and sponsored politicians they have changed the way we think about priorities, their powerful rebranding is in evidence everywhere.
      We have become increasingly used to this over the past 40 years, but when a clear alternative such as the current Labour manifesto becomes available we can see that people have a desire for change towards a better world.
      A paper like this can only highlight the issues, it is up to all of us to make the most of our own situations; to make the arguments; to do what we can, where we can, to bring about change. Otherwise discussions like this go nowhere; we need action as well as words.

  4. Sue -

    Excellent thread and a topic which needs to be discussed more widely. I’m not a “stereotypical” poor person. I wasn’t born into a poor family, had a decent education and a good job, but was hit by “events” and am now in the bottom income decile. I can confirm that your description of poverty is correct, although – thankfully – I’m not without hope for my children.

    1. Peter May -

      I so agree. I learnt at school about the wheel of fortune which was something from the the Middle Ages. I thought it was so stupid and despicable I couldn’t understand why we were learning about it. How wonderfully naive I was!
      I think that hope is now what Labour has given us. Unless you believe in revolution there is little of that with the Tories!

  5. Geoff -

    Thanks Sue,
    It’s so important that people who are experiencing difficulties speak out, as you have done.
    Thanks for reminding us that for most people poverty is an episode which can, and often is, overcome.

    A concern I have is seeing how far reaching and common poverty is becoming, even into what were once well paid secure jobs like teaching especially in areas like London and the South East. Most people living in poverty are in employment, that suggests a system which is failing it’s citizens.
    You’re right, we need to see this discussed more widely, I hope people will.

    This article explains in work poverty well.

  6. Charles Adams -

    Very interesting post. I support the view that within one country it is relative poverty or inequality that counts because it is average income in that country which sets the bar for a tolerable life, and outcomes.

    There is loads of data that demonstrates unequivocally how inequality erodes social mobility – if you are born rich you will most likely end up rich, whereas if you are born poor you will most likely end up poor. This is wrong.

    Last year when the report State of the Nation 2016: Social Mobility in Great Britain, appeared, I made this graphic to represent their data on social mobility. In the game of life you start on the left either poor at the bottom or rich at the top. The colour of each square depicts where you will end up. White means you will definitely end up there, grey there is a chance, black no chance. I hope it makes some sense.

    1. Geoff -

      Sorry for the late reply Charles and thank you for your comments and graph.
      Over the decades I worked with low income families and individuals who struggled on the edge of society, rarely did they ever express a wish to be wealthy. Their aspiration was almost without exception to have enough money, from a job they liked, in which they felt valued and were making a contribution to society, to provide a decent roof over their heads, to buy their children wanted and needed and to have a holiday once each year. Their explanation was often simply so they could have the basic security to spend more time with their families and not bring a myriad of stresses into their lives.
      Not too much to ask.

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