The idea of poverty, by Paul Spicker

Policy Press, 2007, viii + 175 pp, pbk, 978 1 86134 888 3, £15.99, hbk, 978 1 86134 889 0, £55

This is a book for undergraduates studying social policy. It is accessible, wide-ranging, and well organised, and text boxes offer definitions and discussions of particular concepts and issues. (Given the market clearly envisaged, it’s a pity that chapters don’t end with suggestions for further reading and with questions to provoke thought on what the student has read).
Part I is titled ‘understanding poverty’ and contains chapters on definition, poverty in different societies, and statistics. Then follow sections based on particular definitions: ‘poverty as material need’, ‘poverty as economic position’, ‘poverty and social relationships’, and ‘poverty as a moral concept’. The final two sections are on ‘explanations for poverty’ ( – on why people are poor, and on why some countries remain poor) and ‘responses to poverty’.

The style is often combative, and in the final section it is sometimes particularly so. Thus in relation to the slogan ‘teach a man to fish and you feed him for life’: ‘This is staggering arrogance ….. Why do we imagine that people in developing countries do not have the basic skills for survival? Could we survive under the same constraints? Do international organisations really know more about fishing than people who spend their lives doing it?’ (p.135).
Spicker is equally clear in his verdict on social protection systems:

Social protection is not targeted on the poor, then, and it is debatable whether a focus on poverty is even a primary consideration. It is perhaps surprising, then, to discover that some of the national welfare systems which are most effective in dealing with poverty, like those in Northern Europe, have been based on the principle of social protection rather than poor relief. The schemes which do best, like provision for older people in Sweden, are the ones which provide for people regardless of need. Schemes which offer a ‘safety net’ do not do so well in securing a minimum income. If a system is based on support for everyone, poor people will also be helped. If it supports only the poor, some are likely to be excluded (p.136).

When Spicker asks ‘What works?’ (p.143) he discovers that what works is generally policy which improves things for everyone rather than for a particular class of poor people (because that risks ‘musical chairs’, as Spicker puts it, i.e., some people take the relative positions which other people used to have).

This book both recognises the complexity of the situation and at the same time expresses the situation simply: real virtues in a textbook. A clear example of the combination appears on the final page:

There is an argument for focusing on policies which have a generally beneficial effect, and limited movement is better than none; but most strategies based exclusively on one or two factors have failed, and no single element in policy can possibly deal with all the issues. At the very least, poverty has to be understood as relating to material need, economic circumstances and social relationships: no policy which fails to take each of those into account is going to address the main issues. Strategy needs, for the same reason, to be broadly conceived. Policies which look only at part of the problem might succeed but they will not satisfy the aspirations and concerns of different people if those concerns are simply ignored (p.151).