Fighting Poverty, Inequality and Injustice: A manifesto inspired by Peter Townsend, edited by Alan Walker, Adrian Sinfield and Carol Walker

Polity Press, 2011, xiii + 312 pp, pbk, 1 847 42714 4, £21.99, hbk, 1 847 42715 1, £65

Peter Townsend died in 2009, having done more than anyone else during the second half of the twentieth century to research the extent and causes of poverty, to campaign for social justice, and to teach others to do the same.

This book is inspired by Townsend’s writings and activities, the breadth of which the first two chapters well represent. He researched in numerous social policy fields, taught students, headed university departments (and founded one), advised governments, and campaigned, both locally, in Colchester, and nationally (mainly with the Child Poverty Action Group), and latterly internationally as well. His The Poor and the Poorest (with Brian Abel-Smith) in 1965 and his massive Poverty in the United Kingdom, published in 1979, ensured that during the 1970s and 80s no-one could claim that they didn’t know the extent of poverty in this country.

The rest of the book surveys Townsend’s contributions in a variety of policy fields, and asks what action we should be taking today. Here we shall review those chapters which study his work on income maintenance.

Tony Atkinson relates Townsend’s contribution to the campaign for Child Benefit during the early 1970s, and his continuing opposition to income testing. Atkinson details his own preference for ‘generous universal benefits to families with children’ (p.83) and his reasons for continuing the campaign against means-testing. ‘A renewed commitment to Child Benefit by a future government would be a fitting testament to Peter’ (p.89).

Jonathan Bradshaw discusses Townsend’s achievement in defining poverty as relative poverty and as multi-factorial, and suggests that today’s appropriate tasks are research on minimum income standards, study of the relationship between poverty and subjective well-being, and persuading the World Bank to prioritise social protection, and in particular to insist on universal child benefits in developing countries. He commends the Namibian Citizen’s Income pilot project (p.105. See our summary in the Citizen’s Income Newsletter, issue 2 for 2009).

Ruth Lister recounts Townsend’s research and campaigning on child poverty. Today’s task is to campaign for equal life chances for all children in the UK. We can no longer be complacent about the very different life chances that children experience in our society; and we must, of course, campaign for Child Benefit to remain universal (p.124). This theme is taken up in Carol Walker’s chapter, ‘for universalism and against the means test’ (p.133), which offers a comprehensive history of means-tested benefits since 1942, discusses their social consequences, sees them as an instrument of social control, and lists some of their disadvantages: lack of take-up, high marginal deduction rates, etc.. Townsend argued that universal benefits are ‘an efficient, economical and socially integrative mechanism’ to prevent poverty which ‘have as … by-products certain advantages, such as the reduction of social conflict, the greater integration of certain social minorities, and a strengthening of the earning incentives of low-income households, quite apart from any strengthening of social morals as a basis for a more productive economy’ (quoted on p.149). She offers her own list of advantages:

  • ‘Universal benefits offer the most effective way of tackling poverty. They are the only benefits that are capable of reaching all those who are eligible.
  • Universal benefits are the basis of social justice. They allow redistribution vertically and horizontally.
  • Universal benefits show solidarity between the rich and the poor; between the sick and the well; between the old and the young; between families with children and those without.
  • Because universal benefits are received by the affluent as well as the poor, they are less likely to be poor quality.
  • For those who do not wish to see universal benefits ‘squandered’ on the rich, they can be recouped by a more equitable tax system.’ (pp.149-50)

Final chapters on linking the human rights discourse to social policy, and on radical global social policy, suggest to this reviewer two foci for further action in the Townsend mould: Citizen’s Income as a human right, and a European and then a global Citizen’s Income. Neither of these are impossibilities.

Amongst the editors’ conclusions are these:

  • ‘There should be a universal child benefit and a universal basic pension paid at a level that enables full participation in society.
  • The widespread acceptance, nationally and internationally, that means-tested benefits are the more efficient and effective way of helping the poor, must be countered … Only universal benefits and services can reach all of the poor and have the potential, if paid at a sufficient level, to prevent poverty and to avoid the social divisions inevitable in any means-tested system or where the individual has to pay, for example, for healthcare’

They conclude: ‘It is essential to restate unequivocally the case for universalism because that is the bedrock of a strategy to realise social justice.’ (p.283)

Peter Townsend wrote books, articles and reports, and actively campaigned, in a wide variety of social policy fields: ‘ageing, disability, poverty, health inequality, human rights and international social policy’ (p.2), and in relation to all of them he combined careful research with a passionate concern for equality and social justice. We have recently reviewed The Peter Townsend Reader (in the Citizen’s Income Newsletter, issue 1 for 2011), and this present volume accompanies it as a worthy commentary and call to action. We shall respond appropriately both to the Reader and to this book if we do as the editors of this volume have done: that is, if we seek the abolition of poverty by combining thorough research with careful campaigning.