Edward Hadas spoke to us on 13 January 2019. Below is a summary of his talk. His more detailed notes and slides are available at the bottom of the page.
Edward is a Research Fellow at Blackfriars, is a free lance journalist and financial analyst. For several years he was Economics Editor at Reuters Breakingviews, and columnist at Reuters.com, where in 2013 he was awarded Reporter of the Year for commentary and analysis. He is a former Assistant Editor of the Financial Times Lex column.
It may seem like a simple matter to count how many people in Britain have been poor in the recent past, and how many are poor today. A little reflection, however, shows that poverty is a slippery concept, so much so that all numbers should be treated with caution.
To start, the most obvious definition of poverty, what economists call “absolute poverty”, is hardly relevant to the UK. Almost no one lacks to goods needed for human survival – food, shelter, clothing, warmth. Even basic goods which did not exist a century or two ago – electricity, clean water and sewage, telephones, effective health care, elementary and secondary education– are available to virtually everyone.
So the only relevant sort of economic poverty in Britain is “relative”, being poor by the standards of the community. The idea is reasonable, but the social comparisons and judgements are very difficult. There is no obvious definition of the relevant community and no easy way to decide what counts as poor or as unacceptably poor. Also, in today’s developed economies, the lifestyle poverty that is typically measured is generally a less serious problem than either the poverty of insecurity, the fear that unexpected illness or unemployment could bring disastrous economic disorder, or the poverty of opportunity, the deprivation caused by poor nutrition, bad schooling, racism and other injustices.
Also, for the last few decades, he most distressing and increasingly the most prevalent sorts of poverty have not been economic. There is the poverty of indignity, for example living in an abusive household or working as a prostitute. And there is the poverty of despair – the spiritual, social and psychological emptiness which comes with broken families, mental health issues, substance abuse. This despair all too often causes new problems or amplifies existing one, and is associated with disability and early death. Disorientation and loneliness are curses of our individualistic and unreligious modern society. The problems are worst in the United States, but they should be at the centre of any British attack on poverty.
Although the numbers should not be taken as “gospel truth”, they can certainly be helpful. What do they suggest? Basically, by the standard definitions, relative poverty is not a massive problem in the UK. The proportions of poor are comparable to those of France and other successful European countries, and looked at over the last few decades poverty has been on a declining trend. More people have jobs while welfare benefits, especially pensions, have increased overall. Unfortunately, British poverty has increased modestly in the last few years, mostly because of high housing prices and some unfavourable changes in the benefits system.
Especially weak groups include single mothers, households in which no one works and Bangladeshi households (although the trends for the last group are very positive). As might be expected, economic troubles are often material manifestations of the spiritual poverty of despair.
What should Christians make of all this? They should be grateful that absolute poverty has declined greatly globally, and angry that it is not declining faster. Closer to home, they should fight against failures in the welfare state, for example the botched Universal Credit programme, and should support Living Wage campaigns, which help the poor while doing little or no harm to anyone else. Most important, they should make use of Christian charity. Freely given time and personal care are weapons which can fight against the poverty of despair more effectively than any government plan or wage arrangement. Christian love which can soothe the deprivations of the heart.