One of the phrases from the government child poverty strategy that always sticks in my mind is around people who ‘do the right thing’. It is used to highlight how the welfare reforms and the ‘new approach’ to tackling child poverty will ‘reward’ these people. Below are the uses of the phrase in the strategy:
First, we must ensure that families can work themselves out of poverty – if they do the right thing we will make sure the system makes work pay.
The Universal Credit will support those who do the right thing, who take a full time job, to have an income which lifts them out of poverty.
… so that we create a system which rewards people who do the right thing and work themselves out of poverty
In the strategy, this approach is contrasted with the previous government’s approach which is characterised as being about attempting ‘to hit child poverty targets by paying out record amounts in welfare payments’ and an over-reliance on ‘simply throwing money at the symptoms’.
I recently came across a special issue of Local Economy from 1994 which explored ‘local anti-poverty initiatives’ and, from initial readings, a lot of the material is still very relevant today. This morning I read one of the articles, by Peter Alcock, called ‘Welfare rights and wrongs’ which examined the limits of local anti-poverty strategies and a couple of paragraphs seemed especially relevant to the ‘doing the right thing’ approach. Writing about poverty responses in times of economic recession and increasing poverty, he notes that:
At such times the problem of poverty becomes both morally more pressing and politically less containable. But recession also means that the expansive, and expensive, responses of better times are no longer available; and support from the state to the poor, the protection offered by employment and social security, is displaced by more limited support to working with poor people to seek their own solutions – an emphasis instead on from the poor to the state.
The shift in emphasis to working with, rather than for the poor, for all its success in promoting bottom-up community development and generating innovative and effective welfare rights activity, does mask the broader policy failure of economic development and social services in preventing the continuation, and the growth, of poverty in affluent welfare capitalist countries. What is more, despite the superficial attractions of the community base, in returning the problem of poverty to the poor people, it also risks a more sinister development — the pathologisation of poverty as the “problem of the poor”.
Nearly twenty years on from the publication of this article – amidst predictions of increased poverty in the coming years and the lack of evidence which supports the idea that this might be because more people are doing the ‘wrong things’ or, at the very least, not doing the ‘right things’, one could be forgiven for asking if our government was ‘doing the right thing’ by people who are living in poverty…