One Hundred Years of Poverty and Policy, by Howard Glennerster, John Hills, David Piachaud and Jo Webb

Joseph Rowntree Foundation, York, 2004, paperback, 188 pp., 1 85935 221 9, £8.95 Order this book

One Hundred Years of Poverty and Policy traces the development of the concerns of its title, offering an accessible overview of poverty and policy ‘then and now’. As the authors’ state, their aim is ‘to look at current concerns taking the longer view of where we have come from…’ (p.9). While its ambition then is not to be a comprehensive historical text it nevertheless presents a detailed and interesting account of the changes and conceptualisations of poverty and attempted solutions from the late nineteenth century to the present day.

This is a book of four parts with the last shorter section concluding by looking at future challenges in the poverty and policy arena and the potential outcomes of current anti-poverty policy. Part one is an overview of the methods and findings of some founding poverty researchers, paying particular attention to the Rowntrees’ contribution but also examining and summarizing some less well-known studies by female researchers and early investigations of rural poverty. It then moves on to look at the construction of poverty lines, making links between early poverty standards and contemporary measures, followed by examining the changing patterns and causes of poverty.

Glennerster begins the second part of the book by examining the origins of poor relief and the implementation and subsequent changes in government anti-poverty strategies and state support from the turn of the century to 1970. He notes that social insurance was the preferred policy method for the avoidance of poverty over this period. John Hills then briefly outlines the social and policy changes throughout the 1980s and 1990s, a period of burgeoning poverty, before exploring in depth recent policy changes and the consequences of these for different groups of people in poverty. He acknowledges the 1999 pledge by New Labour to end child poverty but also the absence of any commitment to reduce poverty overall and the conflict between the government’s initiatives in tackling poverty and inequality alongside their drive to reduce public spending. Although since 1999 selective increases in benefits have meant significant improvements in living conditions, many others ‘continue to live on incomes that are falling in relative terms’ (p93).

Part three firstly examines the UK position on poverty relative to Europe and some major industrial countries. The UK has improved, especially in relation to families with children and low paid workers. Indeed, around half of the recommendations of the 1995 Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Income and Wealth Inquiry group have come about, bringing positive benefits to people in poverty. The book also notes however that health and wage inequalities remain large and that means testing is an increasing element of contemporary policy. The book concludes in part four by suggesting that a combination of policy avenues should be pursued concurrently, ones that aim both to prevent poverty and also to aid people, financially and otherwise, who may fall into poverty. The authors acknowledge that much post-1997 policy has adopted this multifaceted approach but that some ‘gaps and challenges’ remain. Unfortunately, though, their appraisal fails to look beyond the possible outcomes of current policy. This is a missed opportunity to introduce the idea of alternatives, such as the citizen’s income, as a potential approach for addressing the complexities of modern poverty which the book charts so well.

Despite this lacuna this book is an excellent introduction to poverty and policy over a century, being easily accessible to the general reader but with the feel of a textbook, albeit a superior one, most suitable for those in further education. Illustrations and photographs add to the appeal, especially for the student reader, making this a good book for those coming to the issue of poverty and related policy for the first time.
Jan Flaherty