Halvorsen and Hvinden (eds), Combating Poverty in Europe

Rune Halvorsen and Bjørn Hvinden (eds), Combating Poverty in Europe: Active inclusion in a multi-level and multi-actor context, Edward Elgar, 2016, 1 78471 217 4, hbk, xiii + 236 pp, £80

The question that the researchers tackle is this: How do Sweden, Poland, Germany, Italy and the UK (and particularly Scotland) combat poverty? And while this most interesting book is essentially diagnosis, it will of course help policy-makers answer the question that they are likely to bring to their reading of the different chapters: How can we best combat poverty in our own nation/region/city, and in Europe as a whole?

The introductory chapter offers a brief historical context, and also discusses the complex context in which government (or rather, governance) functions at a variety of levels. At every level, public authorities’ actions are influenced by public authorities at other levels, and by a wide variety of other institutions and pressures, creating a complex structure of power relations, resource exchange, symbolic communication, and actors’ activities, within which social policy needs to be constructed and implemented.

Chapter 2 recounts the somewhat chaotic nature of European poverty measurement and of perceptions of poverty, and asks for a consistent approach and a dynamic analysis of multidimensional disadvantage. It really is important to know how different aspects of poverty affect each other, and therefore how experiences of poverty evolve. Chapter 3 finds that the social, economic, and labour market contexts of poverty differ considerably across Europe, and asks for a more consistent approach to measuring poverty. Chapter 4 shows how ‘poverty’ became ‘social exclusion’ ( – no mention here of the more recent ‘advantage/disadvantage’ framework), how social exclusion became a more significant aspect of the European agenda, and how the recent recession has tipped it back down the agenda.

The second part of the book asks how nation states are tackling poverty, and particularly what activity at different levels looks like from the national point of view. So chapter 5 asks how local employment initiatives both relate to and resist national policy, and how they might co-ordinate better with national income safety nets. One response not given is that in a context in which increasing devolution is bound to make this even more difficult, both local employment initiatives and national income safety nets will need to be redesigned so that ‘disarticulation’ is no longer a problem. Getting rid of a problem can sometimes be more useful than trying to solve it.

Chapter 6 describes national government provisions for lone mothers, the long-term unemployed, and the working poor. The agenda that it sets is this: ‘multifaceted problems entailing high poverty risks require multidimensional, multi-actor and coordinated responses’ (p.107); and it then goes on to show how each nation state pursues policies driven by its own priorities, ideologies, and resources, and how active social work support is often lacking. None of this is a surprise. Chapter 7 studies implementation of the Europe 2020 anti-poverty strategy, and finds that national governments have either domesticated or resisted it. Again, this is no surprise. If a Europe-level welfare state is required, then that is what will have to be implemented. Asking nation states to implement a European strategy in a field that they regard as their own is a recipe for failure.

The third part of the book asks what the multi-level situation looks like from the subnational point of view. Chapter 8 compares five European cities (including Glasgow), and concludes that national-subnational coordination is largely absent, and that maybe ‘the cities … should be classified as ‘independent entities’ from the national level’ (p. 177). But as the chapter concludes: cooperation between different levels could never eliminate poverty. Only the provision of sufficient income could hope to do that. Chapter 9 studies how local actors relate to policies enacted at higher governance levels, finds diversity across Europe – with some minimum income support being partly locally controlled, and some not; and it also finds that four of the cities studied either ‘comply’ with or ‘elaborate’ national policies, whereas Glasgow belongs on its own in a ‘confrontation’ category. The chapter finds almost no relationship between local policymaking and Europe-level policy recommendations. Chapter 10 returns to lone mothers, the long-term unemployed, and the working poor, and finds the working poor to be largely neglected in national and subnational policy, and lone parents and the long-term unemployed prevented from escaping from poverty by an employment market with too few jobs in it. Much of the chapter contains some most useful case study material on people’s experiences of claiming different kinds of means-tested and work-tested benefits. The editors’ final chapter concludes that there attempts to combat poverty in Europe are hindered by inappropriate institutional and policy design; implementation deficits; insufficient capacity; the emergence of competing policy goals; and an underlying ambivalence towards target groups.

What is largely missing from this book is any account of the detail of tax and benefits systems. The structure of the systems is an important factor in how individuals relate to them, and in how those systems relate to other provision, so the omission is important. Perhaps another research project? What the book does usefully provide is an account of experiences of poverty and of some of the ways in which European, national and subnational governments are trying to tackle it. Anyone proposing changes to a country’s tax and benefits systems could usefully work through this book asking themselves how those changes would alter the experiences recounted in the different chapters.

The editors and authors have produced a well-researched and highly relevant book that reveals the deep complexity of the task of combating poverty in Europe. Now we need a bit more prescription to match the diagnosis: and that prescription really must contain a proposal for a co-ordinated redesign of tax and benefits systems, at European, national, and subnational levels.