The future of the left since 1884

Causes, not consequences

Abolishing the causes of poverty will not cost the country more money than it has or can afford, but political will is essential, explains John Veit-Wilson.



Abolishing and preventing poverty demand an attack on its causes not its consequences. Strategic planning for abolition means focus on the defining cause of poverty – people’s serious lack of resources.

Yet the debate around poverty is generally framed around alleviating it, the characteristics of its victims and relief of their consequent deprivations and sufferings, or around detailed policies like social security reform. These social and political concerns rightly have high salience but must not obscure the less visible but more important prior strategic need to abolish what causes poverty in the first place.

The arguments about poverty are highly confused. Definitions must be distinguished from descriptions and causes from consequences, before viable solutions can be identified. The points raised here inevitably underlie all approaches and thus can’t be dismissed as fanciful or impracticable. They assume a Fabian/Labour party approach to equality.

Definition or description?

Poverty means a serious lack of resources to achieve decent inclusion in ordinary society. Resources mean what’s demonstrably needed for people to have free choices of minimally acceptable decent levels of living in conventional society, just as non-poor people have. Descriptions of poverty can’t substitute for definitions or causes any more than descriptions of symptoms define illnesses and their cures.

Causes or consequences?

To abolish the causes of poverty, we must focus on ensuring that both individual and collective resources are in place to meet the same adequacy standards that non-poor people expect for themselves. People with adequate resources don’t suffer poverty. Anything less is unacceptable; inequality of adequate levels of living is a different issue. The essential is adequate resources for all, even if the choice of which sets and combinations of resources, cash or services, are needed for each kind of deprivation or group affected is a matter of functional analysis and tactical judgement. Alleviating the consequences of poverty is naturally good – but it doesn’t abolish the cause.

Inclusive life requires minimum standards defined by society and fit for everyone. By contrast, supporters of social hierarchy think different standards apply to different classes. Such people conceal structural causes by describing poor people’s personal characteristics as individual causes, as when former secretary of state for work and pensions Iain Duncan Smith gave the five causes of poverty as worklessness, family breakdown, educational failure, drug and alcohol addictions, and problem debt. Intriguingly, all these characteristics and behaviours are found right across society (even in the Royal family) without causing poverty to those who can buy their way out of the consequences. Indeed worklessness is the aspiration of the rich. This  confusion of characteristics and consequences with causes diverts attention from the underlying structural problem – a lack of resources,. We must leave the characteristics of the victims or their deprivations and sufferings totally out of our strategic approach.

Adequacy standards

Paradoxically, poverty can only be understood in total social context in terms of not being poor — what is the not-poverty standard against which poverty is identifiable? The Minimum Income Standard (MIS) defines it as ‘a socially acceptable standard of living’ which enables ‘the opportunities and choices necessary to participate in society’. This criterion of not-poverty is not the poverty boundary (representing a serious lack of resources), so measuring against adequacy instead helps prevent poverty and repeated deprivations. It allows people to make lifestyle choices and be treated with the respect ordinary non-poor people expect in the UK. It demands applying similar principles and policies to prevent discrimination as we use to prevent it for any other social or physical differences such as disability. For instance, instead of means-testing, income maintenance should recognise reciprocity of contribution and contingency benefit (as in social insurance). The administrative tone should reflect considerate management of our money for us (in the way we expect banks to do) and not for an oppressive ‘taxpayer’.

The criteria we should use to set an inclusive level of living are what the non-poor majority demonstrate in their own lives. What the government claims ‘the taxpayer’ can afford must never be the basis of society’s adequacy standards. Social research methods are well developed to establish operational criteria. Current methods include direct questions in representative sample surveys of the population’s consensual views of minimum levels of living good enough for everyone (and not just ‘for poor people’ which distorts so many well-meaning research projects). These levels of living are then moderated by experts, costed and used as the basis for MIS and to underpin the real Living Wage. Indirect methods include using statistics of household composition and resource levels at which the population actually achieves the minimum decency standards laid down both by the population and relevant experts (eg for nutrition). Different methods of social research may reveal a range of answers, so informed judgement is likely to be needed to compare and interpret them, to guide governments in planning and implementing social policies to abolish and prevent or alleviate poverty.

Individual and Collective Resources

In our marketised and consumerist society in which everyone’s freedom of choice is expressed by spending one’s own money, it is essential to have enough income to be recognised as included in society and to achieve a respectable minimum level of living. But our capacities for interaction, mobility and cultural and economic participation at levels indispensable for social inclusion can’t all be bought individually. So there is a trade-off between individual purchasing power and those collectively supplied resources available to us. These collective resources include not only adequate preventative and curative physical and mental health services and care across all ages, and adequate housing, but also the whole range of conventional provisions of incomes and working conditions, accessible transport, education and training, culture, recreation and sport, and access to justice, in fact whatever collective resources enable non-poor people to experience social inclusion.

Strategies for abolishing poverty must therefore ensure not only adequate individual incomes but also publicly available collective resources to prevent poverty. Similarly, the disparate costs of dependencies, for instance for children or the extra expenses of disabilities, must be covered by categorical benefits in cash, in kind, in services or combinations of all of these, at levels which enable those affected to achieve socially inclusive adequacy standards.


Abolishing and preventing poverty won’t cost more money than the country has or can afford, especially when the costs of poverty are included. But it will require strategic redistribution of what there is. Political will is the first resource that’s essential.

This blog is the second in our Poverty and social security: where next? series. Read more about the project here.

Photo credit: Morgan Schmorgan

John Veit-Wilson

John Veit-Wilson is Emeritus Professor of Social Policy of Northumbria University and guest member of Sociology at Newcastle University.  

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