Poverty is about economics not morality

A large chunk of the left/right political debate comes down to a single question: why are the poor, poor? The right-wing narrative locates the causes in the behaviour of those who fall into poverty. They allegedly prefer welfare to work, lack self-restraint, disdain stable families and expect others to fix their problems. The left’s alternative explanation is that these people do not work because there isn’t enough work available for them.

Writing for the LSE’s Politics and Policy blog, Professor Glen Bramley points to some new research suggesting that the second explanation is the more plausible:

The Hard Edges study shines a new and striking light on this long-running standoff. The report focusses on a group who may be considered the ‘poster-boys’ (they are mainly male, although not that young), for the moral/behavioural account, a group who sit on the ‘Hard Edges’ of society and social service provision. It attempts to provide the first comprehensive profile of adults suffering from ‘Severe and Multiple Disadvantage’ (SMD), namely combinations of homelessness, chronic offending and substance misuse. The study covers England, drawing on and triangulating evidence from national administrative systems and some targeted as well as more general surveys.

This group are only a small subset of the poor population (around a quarter of a million working age adults, or 4 per cent of the 7 million living in relative low income poverty). Thus, it is quite wrong to portray this as a major, dominant cause of poverty. But, with their complex needs and problems, this group generate quite high levels of financial and social costs on society, while themselves experiencing very poor outcomes and quality of life.

But the really interesting finding, from the viewpoint of the eternal social policy debate, is what emerges from the geographical crunching of the numbers. All three independent administrative datasets yield the same conclusion about the prevalence of severe and multiple disadvantage by local authority area. The top 10 areas are –wait for it – Blackpool, Middlesbrough, Liverpool, Rochdale, Manchester, Hull, Bournemouth, Nottingham, Stoke, Newcastle. With one exception, it is a roll-call of northern urban and industrial towns, the major sites of de-industrialisation and the highest concentrations of low income poverty. The bottom ten are southern affluent commuter suburbs and semi-rural areas – Wokingham, Central Bedfordshire, South Gloucestershire, Windsor & Maidenhead, East Riding, Buckinghamshire, Harrow, Richmond-on-Thames, Surrey, West Berkshire.  This is a clear signal, not just a ghostly image on a cartographic Turin shroud; the stigmata of structural material poverty show through quite clearly, and are confirmed by statistical analysis.

So, if structure matters even for the groups most stigmatised for their personal reprehensible moral and behavioural degeneracy, how much more influential must it be for the generality of poor people? A working age adult in Middlesbrough is ten times more likely than one in Central Bedfordshire to be in our ‘SMD2/3’ category (experiencing two or more of homelessness, substance misuse and/or offending). This evidence strongly suggests that persistent and widespread material poverty linked to structural labour market weakness generates processes which lead to high levels of disadvantage. They say that ‘correlation does not prove causation’, but in this case reverse causation – i.e. the notion that addiction problems brought about the deindustrialisation of northern towns and cities – is not a serious proposition.

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One thought on “Poverty is about economics not morality

  1. They say that ‘correlation does not prove causation’, but in this case reverse causation – i.e. the notion that addiction problems brought about the deindustrialisation of northern towns and cities – is not a serious proposition.

    Yes but — the point is that there are people (lots of people) who live in those northern towns who have NOT succumbed to addiction. So it is certainly not the case that someone exposed to those conditions will become an addict. It must be within their choice whether to become an addict or not, because some do, and some don’t.

    Assuming we accept that human beings are moral agents with free will, not robots doomed to carry out their programming in response to the stimuli of their environment, then we cannot locate the responsibility for addiction anywhere other than in the choice of those who allow themselves to fall into it.

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