Barry Knight, Rethinking Poverty

Barry Knight, Rethinking Poverty: What makes a good society? Policy Press, 2017, ix + 171 pp, 1 4473 4060 7, pbk, £9.99

This book offers a summary of a Webb Memorial Trust research programme that asks how we might construct a society without poverty rather than the slightly different question as to how we might abolish poverty. The first chapter explains why the Trust has taken this approach. It recognises that because ‘poverty’ can have multiple meanings, and because the word can be employed to express a number of misleading statements (for instance, that ‘people in poverty are there because of their own failures and behaviour’ (p.13)), it is not a useful guide to policy. It also recognises that language and public opinion about the UK’s welfare state has become increasingly negative. The result is significant division in society between those who wish to curtail the welfare state and those who wish to reinforce it but find themselves using language that fails to resonate: a problem inevitably faced by this chapter, which frequently uses the word ‘poverty’ without defining it.

The second chapter examines the state of British society after the financial crisis and the vote to leave the European Union, and discovers a paradox: considerable social progress during the past seventy years, and a public that feels that little progress has been made. The author blames poverty, defined here as households living below 60% of median (equivalised?) income, and inequality, fuelled by cuts to public services and by unequal financial rewards.

Chapter 3 is the heart of the book. It describes the kind of society that we want, and the diverse and participatory research that has led the Trust to its five principles of a good society:

  1. We all have a decent basic standard of living.
  2. So we are secure and free to choose how to lead our lives.
  3. Developing our potential and flourishing materially and emotionally.
  4. Participating, contributing and treating all with care and respect.
  5. And building a fair and sustainable future for the next generations. (p. 57)

And underlying all of these: ‘community’.

The fourth chapter asks how to achieve the good society so described. It starts with what is not required: economic growth; income beyond a sufficiency; and top-down technocratic solutions. What is required is social and economic security. The methods proposed are an increasing National Minimum Wage; state-supported housebuilding; relationship support; free early childhood provision; and ‘a shift from welfare for some to social security for all’ (p. 109) – most of which involve top-down technocratic solutions. What the chapter ought to have concluded is that we cannot build the good society without the involvement of the State.

Chapter 5 asks who should create the good society. The report’s answer is: networks arguing for social change ( – not a surprise from the Webb Memorial Trust), and the building of a constituency that will include business, government, the voluntary and community sector, and local fairness commissions.

The final chapter expresses again a preference for a positive ‘security’ over against ‘the abolition of poverty’. It also emphasises the importance of ‘developing society organically from within, not seeking technocratic policy fixes’ (p. 140), although it also recognises that every sector and every level of society needs to be involved, including local and national governments.

This chapter also describes the research undertaken by the Trust to determine how the benefits system might contribute to the required ‘security’. It recognises that here ‘there is no consensus’ (p. 145), suggests that a Citizen’s Basic Income is ‘a promising area for further work’ (p. 145), and then states that ‘financial modelling shows that it is hard to design a revenue-neutral basic income scheme that pays a decent sum without creating significant numbers of losers among people on means-tested benefits’ (p. 146). Yes, difficult, but not impossible, as research has shown. The report is right to say that ‘radical reform of the benefits system will become necessary and desirable’ (p. 146), and that creating a system that ensures that everyone has a secure livelihood might be expensive, but that it would save the vast sums that poverty costs the country.

The Webb Memorial Trust is to be congratulated on its research project; and Barry Knight is to be congratulated on this accessible and comprehensive report.