Poverty, by Ruth Lister

Polity Press, Cambridge, 2004, xi + 238 pp, paperback, 0 7456 2564 9, £14.99 Oder this book

You might think there was nothing new to say about poverty. You might think that Ruth Lister, who has worked on poverty issues for most of her career, might think that she had nothing new to say about poverty. This book would prove you wrong on both counts.

What Ruth Lister succeeds in doing is to construct a clear theoretical framework for those thinking about and working on poverty, from the perspective of a committed poverty activist and analyst. She also clarifies many of the confused arguments about poverty along the way.

She clearly distinguishes concepts, definitions and measures of poverty, and thereby unravels many a misunderstanding. ‘Concepts of poverty operate at a fairly general level’ (p. 3), providing a framework for definitions and measures, and shaping the meaning of poverty both for those who live it and for others. They also incorporate discourses about poverty – the ways in which it is discussed – and this is important; in this book, language and images are seen as key to the politics of poverty.

Definitions of poverty ‘provide a more precise statement of what distinguishes the state of poverty and of being poor from that of not being in poverty/poor’ (p. 4). In practice, there may be some overlap between concepts and definitions. But definitions more clearly focus on what is key to poverty, rather than on other factors which may also be shared by others not living in poverty (such as violations of basic rights and human dignity).

Measures of poverty are often confused with definitions. But they are narrower, in part because they can be applied to certain characteristics of poverty more easily than to others. Understandings of poverty derived from participatory approaches often highlight aspects – such as powerlessness or ‘voice poverty’ – which are key to the experience of poverty, but which are not usually captured well in traditional measures. As Ruth Lister says, ‘to move straight to definitions and measures without first considering the broader concepts can result in losing sight of wider meanings and their implications for definitions and measures’ (p. 5).

This seems straightforward, but is rarely clarified by other writers on poverty, and by itself would justify the publication of Poverty. But Ruth Lister also develops a theoretical framework for understanding poverty which manages to link redistribution, recognition and respect, and to bring together the politics of redistribution and the politics of identity as they apply to poverty. Her insight is that the politics of identity as traditionally understood in recent political philosophy need to be radically rethought in their application to people experiencing poverty.

This is because the relationship of people experiencing poverty to identity politics is different. They do not want their difference to be recognised – as women, black people or disabled people might – but want to be treated as human beings of equal worth alongside others. But the demand for respect is nonetheless similar.

Respect is a crucial theme in Poverty, not just because of these topical theoretical debates but also because it is a central factor emphasised by people experiencing poverty when they are asked about their own experience. When we treat people experiencing poverty with disrespect, we are engaged in a process of ‘Othering’, which sees ‘them’ as different from ‘us’. It is the responsibility of politicians and the media in particular to ensure that they do not encourage this process, as they have so often done in recent years. Whilst Ruth Lister draws on the work of others, in particular Iris Young and Nancy Fraser, the fact that ‘othering’ is increasingly recognised as a significant issue in poverty analysis is due to this publication.

Poverty also manages to highlight the agency of people experiencing poverty, without thereby losing sight of the major structural reasons for the existence of poverty. These reasons include the network of inequalities (of race, gender, disability, and age amongst others) within which poverty is framed, which is given its due weight here.

Ruth Lister emphasises the importance of ‘voice’ – the right of people experiencing poverty to have a say in decisions that affect their lives. And she demonstrates that their experience is instead often one of powerlessness – or of token participation which is insulting. This is where the politics of poverty is related to debates about citizenship and democracy, and cannot be taken forward positively in the longer term without setting poverty within this wider context. This book is a major contribution to that endeavour – and so should be read not only by students and academics but also by anti-poverty activists.

Fran Bennett