No 5: Where do we go from here? Fifty years on from the ‘War on Poverty’

Dr Martin Luther King, Jr and other civil rights leaders met with President Lyndon Johnson, who launched the war on poverty, at the White House in 1964.
US President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Civil Rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr., Whitney Young, James Farmer at the White House in 1964. (Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum)

by Stephen Crossley

In 1967, Martin Luther King began work on a book titled ‘Where Do We Go from Here?’, in which he argued that the choice was between ‘chaos or community’. The book, published in 1968, discussed issues of race, civil rights, democracy, education and poverty. Dr King argued that the ‘war on poverty’, announced by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, was unlikely to succeed for a number of reasons. He argued that the budget for the programme was so limited that ‘it could not launch a good skirmish against poverty, much less a full-scale war’ and that the programme’s efforts to solve poverty did so by ‘first trying to solve something else’. He also argued that ‘fragmented and spasmodic reforms have failed to reach down to the profoundest needs of the poor’. In a speech in 1967, Dr King linked the decline in funding for the Community Action Program with the increased focus on, and resources required by the Vietnam war.

If we fast forward 50 years and cross the Atlantic, Dr King’s concerns about the US government’s commitment towards poverty could easily be applied to contemporary efforts in the UK. Whilst the then-President of the US declared ‘war on poverty’, in 1999 Tony Blair promised to ‘end child poverty for ever’, in 2010 the Child Poverty Act made the pledge to ‘eradicate’ child poverty a legally binding commitment, and, in 2016, whilst still Prime Minister, David Cameron launched his own ‘all-out assault on poverty’.

Have we learnt anything?

Despite these high-profile commitments from powerful individuals and institutions, child poverty levels in the UK are predicted to rise, primarily as a result of the government’s tax and welfare reforms. Large parts of the Child Poverty Act, including the commitment to eradicate poverty by 2020, have been repealed and the Act itself has been written out of the history books and the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 suggested that it ‘may be cited as the Life Chances Act 2010’. International issues and concerns about Britain’s ‘place in the world’, including the decisions to leave the European Union and to renew the Trident submarines appear to attract more resources and political attention than poverty does nowadays.

The government have argued, at different times, that we need a ‘new approach’ to tackling poverty or ‘better measures’ to understand it. The Centre for Social Justice ‘think-tank’ claims to have identified ‘five pathways’ to poverty: family breakdown, educational failure, worklessness, addiction and debt. The central plank of Cameron’s ‘all-out assault’ on poverty appears to be knocking down what he referred to as ‘sink estates’. The government’s first child poverty strategy emphasised the importance of parenting in addressing child poverty, whilst the second strategy included measures to reduce the costs of utility bills and transport. There appeared to be little consistency between the two.

Just as efforts to address poverty appear to still be ‘fragmented and spasmodic’, the concept of poverty itself is in danger of being fragmented. Campaigns to address different types or effects of poverty such as ‘fuel poverty’, ‘furniture poverty’ and ‘period poverty’ have sprung up. Efforts to tackle ‘food poverty’ also include a particular focus on ‘holiday hunger’.

A new book tells us that poverty needs ‘rethinking’, that ‘social policy has failed to find answers’ to poverty and inequality. A communications director at one of the leading funders of poverty research in the UK has recently argued that ‘the fact that poverty figures in this country have stayed broadly the same for the past 25 years suggests that anti-poverty campaigners might be missing the spot’ and that there is a ‘need to work with storytellers to craft more effective narratives for social change’.

Such views shift the attention away from the political indifference to the issue of poverty and undermine the fundamental premise that poverty is a lack of resources required to achieve an adequate standard of living, as opposed to individual products or services. Social policy academics and other social researchers and campaigners have documented the extensive impacts and effects of living on a low income, beyond not being able to purchase individual items, the fact that ‘money matters’ to children’s outcomes, and that direct cash transfers often lead to better outcomes than increased service provision. A review of ‘100 years of poverty and policy’ highlighted that:

Explanations we are familiar with today — unemployment generated by economic cycles, the changing needs of families over their life cycle and the rigidity of wages compared to changing family needs over a life time — were already formulated.

We also know which policies worked in reducing child poverty in the early 2000s and which reforms led to progress stalling. Researchers have also highlighted how most of the government’s post-2010 welfare reforms have ‘hit the poorest places hardest’ and had an uneven impact, with the most disadvantaged groups being worst affected by many of them. Much of these analyses have been carried out using the government’s own figures.

Where do we go from here?

The fact that poverty still exists today is not a failure of social policy research or poverty activists, in the same way that the blame for climate change should not be laid at the door of environmental researchers and campaign groups. It is governments, as John Veit-Wilson pointed out in 2000, that have the ultimate say on levels of poverty:

Ensuring that all the members of society, residents in or citizens of a nation state, have enough money is a clear role which governments can adopt or reject, but they cannot deny they have the ultimate power over net income distribution.

Dr King quoted an American public official to make a similar point — again still relevant today in our grossly unequal society — pointing that ‘the poor can stop being poor if the rich are willing to become even richer at a slower rate.’ If we really do need a ‘new approach’ to poverty or need to ‘rethink’ it in some way, turning our attention to the behaviours of the rich and powerful groups in society, interrogating their indifference to poverty and the ‘corporate welfare’ they enjoy, would be a good start. For, as R. H. Tawney observed way back in 1913, ‘what thoughtful rich people call the problem of poverty, thoughtful poor people call with equal justice a problem of riches’.

Stephen Crossley is a Senior Lecturer in Social Policy at the University of Northumbria. His book, In Their Place: The Imagined Geographies of Poverty, is available now through Pluto Press. He tweets at @akindoftrouble.