Tackling Poverty in the UK: the best evidence and the right perspective

Dr. Beth Watts, Research Fellow
Dr. Beth Watts, Research Fellow

Earlier this year, I took part in an event focusing on how lasting change for people and places in poverty can be achieved. The organisers – the Joseph Rowntree Foundation – asked participants to describe the one thing they would change about society today that would have the most positive and long-lasting impact on poverty in the UK. Here is my answer.

Myths, misinformation and prejudice about the nature and causes of poverty, and the characteristics of those who experience it, are key barriers to reducing it. Wilful neglect of the available evidence by some of the media and political elite play a crucial role too in sensationalising poverty, demonising those who experience it, and making progressive policy responses harder to attain.

It won’t come as a surprise (I’m a researcher, after all) that I think better regard for robust and balanced evidence would improve responses to poverty and other social problems. While ‘evidence-based policy’ has become unfashionable in some quarters, it is crucial in shaping policies that actually work. A focus on evidence also provides some guard against the development of policies that while popular, may be counter-productive.

The dramatic recent rise in the application of sanctions in the welfare benefit system offers one example: while harsher treatment of those who are unemployed may be a vote winner, it’s far from clear that it leads to better long-term employment outcomes, while it’s becoming increasingly obvious that in some cases it leads directly to substantial hardship.

iStock_000011154248MediumFor Thomas Nagel (a student of John Rawls’ and a leading philosopher in the Anglo ‘analytical’ tradition), the business of ethics (and science, incidentally) is in large part the attempt to “climb outside of our own minds”. Nagel’s central contention is that pursuing detachment from our initial standpoint “is an indispensible method of advancing our understanding of the world and of ourselves, increasing our freedom in thought and action, and becoming better”. Nagel understands that there can be no perfect ‘view from nowhere’, as no one can step outside of themselves entirely, leaving behind the personal history that shapes them. But he does see it as morally incumbent on us all to attempt to enlarge our world view by taking all reasonable efforts to see the world from other people’s perspectives.

This has obvious parallels with recent calls for a return to ‘compassion’ and ’empathy’ in politics and social analysis – though I think the attempt to adopt a ‘view from nowhere’ involves much more than just cultivating these virtues. It involves, for instance, the attempt to actively seek out and understand the perspectives and experiences of others – not just to respond compassionately to the people that naturally cross our path.

I see the struggle to adopt this ‘view from nowhere’ as central to the work of social researchers, but also to the task of politicians and other decision-makers and opinion-formers. It involves an attempt to grapple with the numerous trade-offs and conflicts between goals, values and group interests that results from an attempt to see issues from as many relevant perspectives as possible, without being unduly influenced by one’s own starting position or life history.

One of the advantages of such a perspective is that it guards against our (often unconscious) tendency to look for evidence to support our own view of the world (‘confirmation bias’). A second is that it may help counter our tendency to assume that others’ (though not our own) misfortune, including poverty, is the result of personal culpability rather than being in part shaped by circumstance or context (the ‘fundamental attribution error’). A third is that it may provide a counterweight to the limitations of a purely pluralist politics that relies on fair outcomes emerging from the cut and thrust of myriad interests fighting it out in the ‘marketplace of ideas’.

How a ‘view from nowhere’ becomes better valued and better embedded in the political process and in mainstream media representations of poverty, I’m not entirely sure. What I do know is that sleeping rough for one night or living on benefits for one week is not sufficient, though a growing line of politicians would like to think it was. Tackling the still vastly unrepresentative composition of the House of Commons, House of Lords and our other key political, economic and media institutions is part, but certainly not all, of the answer. It isn’t only about ensuring that people with a broader range of life experiences – including poverty – have a ‘seat at the table’. It’s also about opinion formers and decision makers – whatever their background – having the moral imagination to understand the implications of their rhetoric and decisions in shaping the experiences of those whose paths in life rarely cross their own.

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