Engaging the poor in anti-poverty policy making

Simon Barrow


In the light of the massive cuts in public services being implemented by central and local government, there is increasing concern in many sectors of society about the expanding and damaging gap between rich and poor in Britain today. This paper sets out the case for making those living with poverty axial in decision-making about issues implicated in this division at all levels of society. It links to recent relevant research and makes a brief contribution concerning questions of power, viewpoint and orientation, mechanism and priority, and belief and theological orientation. To be expanded.

"Nothing about us, without us, is for us." - Scotland's Poverty Truth Commission.


In the light of the massive cuts in public services being implemented by central and local government, there is increasing concern in many sectors of society about the expanding and damaging gap between rich and poor in Britain today - as well as the persistent blights of economic deprivation, joblessness, social exclusion, child poverty, denial of equal dignity to people with disabilities, violence and abuse in hurting communities, and other manifestations of relative poverty. These include concerns about 'two tier' provision arising from changes put forward by the government in health and education.

Questions of power

Central to all this, in our view, are two sets of questions: "who wins, who loses, and who decides?" (social critic and theologian Brian Wren, writing in Education for Justice, SCM, 1985), and "What change/reform, for whom, by whom, through what means, to what effect in terms of both means and trackable ends?"

These questions have two dimensions: moral and political-economic. Morally, Ekklesia believes that it is wrong that the current trajectory of government policy is actually making those with fewest resources pay most for a deficit and financial crisis they did not create, and over which they have no control - while those who do bear responsibility, and who are in the best position to bear the burden, are 'bailed out'.

The idea, put forward in a well-meaning but regrettably superficial way by the Archbishop of Canterbury and others, that rich and poor should "share the burden", and by Chancellor George Osborne that "We're all in this together", do not bear detailed scrutiny. The most vulnerable should not have to pay, and we are not equal partners in bearing the sovereign or structural deficit burden - which is in any case a matter of political and economic choices, not blind inevitability. ('Cuts are about ideology, not the deficit', Ekklesia, 24 March 2011.)

Similarly, the rhetoric of 'Big Society' and 'compassionate conservatism' rings hollow from the perspective of the poorest and most vulnerable. Slashing welfare, making life less bearable for people with disabilities, axing jobs, and removing funding from civil society organisations and takeholders who are supposed to pay for and run facilities politicians do not want the state or the taxpayer to fund - such realities make a mockery of 'social enterprise' and claims, and indicate that the underlying agenda is not a (properly) 'modernising' one.

Instead it is a re-branding of structural inequality, punitive welfare and the deceit of the 'deserving' and 'undeserving' poor from an earlier era - with policies drawing on the ideology and practice of the political and religious right in the United States (as Ekklesia's forthcoming analysis of the intellectual, political and theological roots of 'Big Society' will demonstrate).

Questions of viewpoint and orientation

But there is another, more promising trajectory. The issues of poverty, exclusion, marginalisation and inequality are being tacked collaboratively by policy-makers decision-influencers, politicians, civil / faith partners - and those with direct experience of poverty and of marginalised communities - together. This has been the pattern of working established by the Poverty Truth Commission in Scotland. It offers a way forward for the rest of Britain too. Its watchword is, "Nothing about us, without us, is for us." That is, you cannot solve poverty without 'the poor'. They are the keys to their own destiny.

Those living with the consequences of grotesquely distorted political, economic, social, cultural (and indeed spiritual) disparities and divisions should not simply be 'included' or 'consulted' by those with power and wealth. Nor should they be interrogated, scrutinised and critiqued from a safe distance. They should be shaping decisions about the reallocation, redistribution and direction of resources, money, partnerships and policies at every level of governance, within the Third Sector and in civil society.

This needs a huge cultural shift among those with a monopoly on power. ('Huge culture shift needed, says Poverty Truth Commission', Ekklesia, http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/14584 ). It also requires an awareness of the way in which democratic mechanisms for accountability, representation and participation need to be re-cast in order to counterbalance the crushing of political mechanisms (those to do with power and decision-making which exist in elected bodies) by a top-down, money-driven and monopolistic version of 'the market' (which should actually be about markets linked to people-in-community and planetary needs).

Questions of mechanism and priority

So making the the poor the crucial wedge and turn-key for anti-poverty strategies is not simply about a few meetings or the kind of 'convenience consultation' that governments and local authorities sometimes use to legitimate, rather than transform, policy-making. It is about deeper structural change. But that has to be shaped from the ground up - which is where the process developed by the Poverty Truth Commission (http://www.povertytruthcommission.org/) is so important.

Likewise, Church Action on Poverty's 'Close the Gap' campaign (http://www.church-poverty.org.uk/close-the-gap), is about re-moulding 'poverty discourse' by bringing the politics and economics involved into direct contact with people's everyday lives, and recognising that at core it is a 'wealth debate' and an 'equality debate' -- not a conversation which presupposes that those with a near monopoly on power should decide what to do about the 'problems' of those who lack power, without actually redistributing any of the power involved.

This does not mean, of course, that the poor are always right or have a monopoly on wisdom. Change always involves partnership and mutual illumination correction. But it does mean that there is no way forward without those whose lives are impaired and limited (often, stunted) by current power arrangements.

Ten years ago, and OECD assisted report on 'Engaging the Poor in Policy-making on Poverty and Social Exclusion in Flanders (Belgium)' put the issue well. Its authors declared:

The poor experience social exclusion more strongly, have access to fewer channels through which to exercise their rights, and meet with greater barriers to participation than other citizens. Not only does participation of the poor in policy-making imply their recognition as fully-fledged citizens and as being capable of contributing to the development of society – it also contributes to designing more effective policies against poverty and social exclusion.

As a consequence the report recommended that: participation by the poor [should] be used as a benchmark against which government policy and initiatives to strengthen government-citizen relations may be evaluated – those measures which prove successful in engaging the poor may well be valuable in fostering greater public participation on the part of all citizens..

This is the direction in which NGOs, civic alliances, churches and faith bodies need to move in the coming months and years in order to develop a constructive, just, empowering and morally compelling response to the otherwise 'toothless' (Archbishop Vincent Nichols) Big Society agenda - and to the specifics of policy in health and welfare, employment, disability, regeneration, education and a host of related areas impacting marginalised communities and effecting the overall balance of prosperity and power in the nation.

For though the concern is about mraginalisation, it is not a 'arginal concern'. The latest measurements indicate 13½ million people in the UK living in households below the accepted low-income threshold. This is around a fifth of the population, and it is only the tip of the iceberg when other measurements are calibrated and included.

Questions of belief and theological standpoint

The case we have been putting forward is that the division between those who have more and those who are denied most is one of the chief moral and spiritual challenges of our era, nationally, globally and regionally. There is no 'neutral' vantage point from which to view it and participate in the processes of change. One is either oriented towards those with most power or to those with least power, wherever one is located within the social, political and economic structure. "Unless one has placed oneself on the side of the oppressed, to feel with them, one cannot understand," declared Simone Weil poignantly.

Former Anglican Bishop of Liverpool David Sheppard helped to introduce into mainstream Christian discourse a theological notion that had been well-developed in the 1960s in Latin America and Asia, where the realities of poverty were unavoidable in terms of the pastoral and structural practices/mission of the churches. Namely, tht there is an inherent 'bias to the poor' in the Hebrew Scriptures (notably the prophetic tradition) and in the Christian Gospels - most especially through the social practice of Jesus, which put the last first, overturned cultural and social exclusions, and challenged the powerful in their overlapping sovereignties of 'religion' and 'politics'.

This leaning favourably towards those marginalised within the dominant political and religious order is not a matter of 'favouritism' per se. It is a tangible recognition of the need to move against, and counter-balance, inequality and injustice, in order to work towards a new community of equals - where spiritual and economic attributions of worth are congruent.

This is what the ekklesia, the public assembly of people who owe allegiance to God and who seek to live life along correspondingly different lines (those of sharing, nonviolence, forgiveness and hospitality) looks like. It is also the basis upon which Christians and Christian communities should be seeking to respond to the opportunities (and temptations) laid before them by a government which wishes to make use of 'faith communities' in service delivery - but usually in a top-down way that is about institutional security and saving money, rather than redistributive justice.

Poverty is not simply a 'moral concern' for Christians. It is a matter of fundamental ecclesial idenity; of who we are, how we are formed, and who we stand with and for - as well as apart from, and against, whe it comes to the sanctioning of injustice or violence.

Some key research resources

This section will be substantially enhanced after 16 April 2011

* Full reports and articles from the Poverty Truth Commission: http://www.povertytruthcommission.org/index.php?id=7

* The Poverty Site: The UK site for statistics on poverty and social exclusion. (This site monitors what is happening to poverty and social exclusion in the UK. The material is organised around 100 statistical indicators covering all aspects of the subject, from income and work to health and education. The indicators and graphs can be viewed by age group or by subject. The material covers all parts of the United Kingdom, with specific sections for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. All data is from official sources and is the latest available. All graphs and text are updated whenever new data becomes available.) - http://www.poverty.org.uk/index.htm

* Church Action on Poverty: Close the Gap site - http://www.church-poverty.org.uk/close-the-gap

* Common Wealth: Christians for economic and social justice - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/CommonWealthStatement

* The True Church and the Poor, by Jon Sobrino (Wipf & Stock, 2004).

* 'Spiritual Growth and the Service of the Poor', by Albert Nolan (CIIR, 1979).

* Ekklesia articles and comment on Scotland's Poverty Truth Commission - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/povertytruthcommission

* 'Cuts are about ideology, not the deficit', by Simon Barrow, Ekklesia, 24 march 2011 - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/14407

* A Politics of Recognition and Respect: Involving People with Experience of Poverty in Decision making that Affects their Lives, by Professor Ruth Lister, Department of Social Sciences, University of Loughborough. (Social Policy and Society, 2002 - Volume 1, Issue 01, Cambridge University Press). In 1995, over 100 countries signed up to this statement in the Copenhagen Declaration and Programme of Action at the UN World Summit for Social Development. The second section of this article reflects on an initiative in the UK, which aims to make a reality of the Copenhagen commitment around the demand for the involvement of people in poverty in decision making that affects their lives. The first, longer, section makes a normative theoretical case for such action. http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid...

* Engaging the Poor in Policy-making on Poverty and Social Exclusion in Flanders (Belgium), by Anja Claeys (with Filip Coussee, Silke Heiden and Anne Merckaert, Department of Social Intervention, Culture and Leisure Studies, Ghent University and Lieve De Grande, Family and Social Welfare Department, Ministry of the Flemish Community), OECD, 2011.



(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Eklesia, the beliefs and values think-tank that examines politics, power, religion and culture from a dissenting Christian perspective (www.ekklesia.co.uk).

April, 2011