For many decades, under successive Governments, UK poverty has been defined narrowly by a measure of national income inequality. That is to say, households have been classified as living in poverty if they fall below a set income level, typically taken at 60 per cent national median income. Although this technique can be helpful in mapping low income areas, it is an arbitrary measurement of poverty, which reveals little about the reality of life in low income communities, and it offers no explanation or understanding about the root causes of poverty.
The policy implications of this definition have been significant. A political fixation with lifting groups of people – such as pensioners and one parent families – above the ‘poverty line’ through the welfare system, has further entrenched dependency on the state and created static low income areas, from which it is very difficult for people to progress.
In moving beyond this failed poverty line approach, the CSJ has identified five key and interconnected features of social breakdown, which we call the ‘pathways to poverty’. Through our work we have seen how these pathways create poverty, but how they are also its consequences. They are foundational to developing a new understanding of poverty.
As single or one-off characteristics in life these pathways are damaging, but as a combination they create a perfect storm in which entering poverty becomes far more likely, if not a certainty.
For instance, a child who experiences family breakdown is more likely to fail in school. Someone who fails at school is less likely to be in work and more likely to require benefits. Individuals on benefits and living in low income are more likely to experience serious personal debt. Debt often leads to family breakdown, and so the cycle continues. In our experience, drug and alcohol abuse are often an additional influence, further entrenching social breakdown destroying potential.
Yet equally, these pathways identify core protective factors against poverty, which should be established to prevent social breakdown and change lives. These are: strong and stable families; inspiring education; a welfare system that rewards work, not benefits; effective drug and alcohol prevention, enforcement and treatment; and efforts to prevent unmanageable levels of personal debt. As two, three or more of these factors are established with an individual or family, social breakdown and poverty become much less likely.
In view of clear solutions, and the work of those who deliver them, there is cause for great hope in communities ravaged by social breakdown. Across the UK the CSJ has found the main reason for hope is the work of the voluntary and community sector. The best of these organisations change lives every day. They uniquely achieve what the state and the private sectors cannot. They are the poverty-fighting front line.
Social justice is not achieved by focussing on the poverty line or tweaking the benefits budget. Instead, it requires unleashing the work of change in people’s lives to create in them opportunities and hopes for the future, as well as a level playing field for positive choices.
For more information on the valuable work of the poverty-fighting organisations, please see the CSJ Alliance.