Last week the Webb Memorial Trust launched a New Statesman supplement, A Good Society without Poverty, the last in a series of work from the Trust exploring what a good society means and how it might be achieved.


How to end poverty has been a central question for social reformers for decades, yet research for the Webb Memorial Trust suggests that ‘how?’ may be the wrong starting point.

Top-down approaches to solve poverty have too frequently proved inadequate, from the American ‘War on Poverty’ to Labour’s ‘Neighbourhood Renewal Programme’, closed early by the Treasury because of a lack of progress. In post-Brexit Britain it’s clear that ordinary people, wary and mistrusting of the establishment, are no longer willing to simply be passive consumers of services and benefits from above. There is a new feeling of an active society where everyone has the potential to be involved in growth and change. Instead of considering ‘how’, the question the Webb Memorial Trust asks is ‘who’; whose responsibility is poverty?


The supplement summarises the findings of a diverse group of Webb grantees, each of whom was tasked with thinking creatively about the different actors who could help in reducing poverty. While each resulting article shares different yet complementary ideas, every one identifies an urgent need to create a new narrative about poverty, one that is simple, positive and engaging for everyone.

Olivia Bailey, director of research at the Fabian Society, shared a refreshing approach which brought together six recommendations for how we might create this new effective narrative on poverty:


1. Broaden what poverty means
The language around poverty has focused too much on ‘monetary transfer social justice’ (low income) which, ignoring other aspects of poverty such as lack of time with family or poorly performing schools, has prevented many identifying with the conversation.

Talking purely about inequality and the ‘crisis’ we face describes the problem but doesn’t generate enthusiasm for a solution.

2. Re-universalise the welfare state
The welfare state should be re-described in its original form as social insurance against the risks we all face in our lifetimes, reducing the stigma of ‘welfare’ and increasing a sense of social solidarity.

3. Make the economic case
Inequality of opportunity has been proven to be bad for growth, holding back the whole country, not just the disadvantaged. Politicians shouldn’t be afraid to use this argument for tackling poverty.

4. Fairness is crucial
In 1942 William Beveridge said the famous words, “Benefit in return for contributions, rather than free allowances from the State, is what the people of Britain desire.” This reciprocity prevents reciepents from feeling unvlaued whilst supporting notions of mutual support. 

5. Get comfortable with aspiration
The narrative currently focuses intensely on those who are worst off and how we can ‘solve’ this problem. Instead the narrative should talk about how people can succeed and recognise that all people aspire for better for themselves and their families.

6. Language matters
It may seem superficial to talk about language, but it’s a vital component for engaging those disenfranchised and disconnected into politics. Talking purely about inequality and the ‘crisis’ we face describes the problem but doesn’t generate enthusiasm for a solution. The way we talk should inspire, not demotivate.

[A new narrative must] tie aspiration, solidarity and security together. It must ensure tackling poverty is a collective endeavour by emphasising the collective benefits. And it must sound optimistic for individuals and their families. Any plan to end poverty will at some point require people to vote for it.

I agree that combatting poverty must be a collaberative effort. The question 'Whose responsibility is poverty?' tempts an immediate answer of, simply, "everyone"; the state, charities, philanthropists, communities, individuals, businesses. Indeed the opportunity to be involved in change is open to everyone, and yet it is painfully clear that not everyone wants to take part; in fact some agents are directly contributing to levels of poverty (just consider those offering zero-hours contracts).

The responsbility for tackling poverty primarily lies with those who want to see that change. Oliva Bailey's suggestions aim to provide a new narrative for engaging more people into wide-reaching issues of poverty in the UK. Whilst policy change, charity work, and business contribution are all vital to tackling the casues of poverty, without the input, support, and unique skill-sets of more of us from all walks of life, ending poverty in the UK will be a much longer, tougher battle.

I'm encouraged by Olivia Bailey's suggestions and by this work from the Memorial Trust and the New Statesman. A new narrative on poverty is long over due.