“Irrefutable” Facts on Poverty from the United Kingdom

Commentary, Poverty, Mark Milke

In a small village on the idyllic Isle of Skye in Scotland last August, the owner of a boutique hotel confessed to me he was not optimistic about the United Kingdom, either economically or socially. A former Anglican lay missionary, and in the 1970s an investment manager for several thousand well-heeled London clients, he combined his financial psyche with a parson’s concern for his flock.

On the economic side, he was worried about the de-leveraging of the post-2000 bubble economy—worries which turned out to be prescient given the financial meltdown that began to occur in the world’s stock markets about two weeks after our conversation.

His other concern was for Britain’s social fabric. In his own hamlet, drug use, public drunkenness, and violence were rampant, this in a nation once known for its sense of propriety. Also, social standards were obviously low: a few months previous, a couple had sex against the wall outside a local pub in full view of the patrons. Most laughed it off and few thought it obscene.

The topic of British society came up again in my recent interview with Iain Duncan Smith, former leader of the U.K. Conservatives. Smith is still a parliamentarian but now has a passion and a project that is non-partisan: the restoration of civil society, including and critically—poverty reduction efforts that begin with a fresh look at how people become poor.

In 2004, Smith co-founded Britain’s Centre for Social Justice (centreforsocialjustice.org.uk). He began his project because he noticed the recent growth in entrenched poverty. “If you were born in that group,” says Smith in an interview from London, “you were more likely to stay in that group for the rest of your life than at any time since the war.” As he puts it, “social mobility was grinding to a halt and that therefore this was a group becoming characterized by dependency and hopelessness.”

The problem was not a lack of wealth creation. Until recently, Britain had plenty of it thanks to Margaret Thatcher’s 1980s-era reforms. Those reforms were preferable to the failed pre-Thatcher economy where entrepreneurship and private sector job creation were discouraged at a cost to almost everyone. Her reforms created jobs which lifted plenty of people out of poverty.

Instead, the recent growth in entrenched poverty was linked to how governments often try and identify the poverty “line” and then merely throw resources at the people below it. But that ignores what Smith describe as the “five pathways to poverty”: family breakdown, debt, failed education, worklessness and dependency (grouped together), and last—drug and alcohol addiction and abuse.

Why does proper sourcing of a specific cause of someone’s poverty matter? Because money injected into a person’s bank account alone won’t solve poverty. The family of a drug addict will remain in poverty if the user blows much of the income support on the addiction, which he will.

Which is where volunteerism, local agencies and others come in: charitable groups, religious institutions, counsellors, voluntary groups—what we call civil society, and even government departments with an ear to the ground, are the ones which have the most success in turning around families in despair when they focus on early childhood intervention, addictions, marriage counselling and other support measures.

The last node—family break-ups or single parenthood as a cause for poverty or other misfortunes, is often controversial; Smith argues it shouldn’t be and cautions against interpreting his Centre’s frank diagnosis of what can cause poverty for a blame-the-victim approach.

Instead, he wants British politicians and others (he’s in Canada in mid-March for an Ottawa conference with the Institute of Marriage and the Family) to pay attention to the effects of how having only one parent around risks disastrous consequences for children.

Using British statistics, Smith says “some very, very simple facts that are irrefutable”: Compared to one’s peer group, a child in a home that is other than a two-parent family is 75 per cent more likely to fail at school, 70 per cent more likely to be a drug addict, 50 per cent more likely to have alcohol problems, 40 per cent more likely to have debt problems, and 35 per cent more likely to experience unemployment or welfare dependency.

For Smith, remedies to this are not about blaming lone-parent households, some of whom exist for understandable reasons such as spousal abuse, and where some single parents are exemplary in raising their kids; it’s about squarely facing the higher statistical risk and what that means for society at large. It’s also not about a left-right or public sector-versus-private sector debate. It is about investigating the various causes of poverty, accepting the data that comes back, and then figuring out which government policies, institutions, civil society and non-profit groups, strategies, and pathways can lead people out of entrenched poverty.

It’s a critical work given that some lifestyle choices and pathologies can both cause poverty and then prolong it. And that has ramifications for much of the other anti-social behaviour my British friend on Skye identified as endemic in his own hamlet.