This article appeared in the print edition of the Evening Telegraph: 10/06/2019 [Online], Available: https://www.eveningtelegraph.co.uk/fp/ewan-gurr-its-stories-not-stats-that-let-us-understand-poverty/ [Accessed: 2019, Jun 11]
“When researchers with expertise in analysing international trends in extreme poverty see fit to visit the fifth richest nation in the world, we need to take notice, listen intently and reflect deeply.”
Last Friday marked Theresa May’s final day in office as Prime Minister. It is always dangerous to set down a litmus test for your premiership. Tony Blair sought to be judged on education, education, education but will always be remembered for Iraq. David Cameron sought to be judged on his long-term economic plan but will always be remembered for Brexit. And Theresa May set out her stall against the burning injustices but her long-term neglect of domestic policy has kindled a blazing inferno.
In recent months, more than any other time I can remember, there has been an unrivalled avalanche of reports from various sources on poverty but there are two which particularly concerned me – one by Philip Alston at the United Nations and another by Kartik Raj at Human Rights Watch. When researchers with expertise in analysing international trends in extreme poverty see fit to visit the fifth richest nation in the world, we really need to take notice, listen intently and reflect deeply.
Instead of responding with humility, Conservatives have gone on the offensive by denying the extent of poverty in the United Kingdom. Last week, within 48 hours of one another, Chancellor Philip Hammond rejected the idea that vast numbers are experiencing dire poverty. Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan wrote a column stating poverty is not rising. And, finally, leadership contender Esther McVey denied the government’s welfare policies were anything other than an unmitigated success.
However, it was Daniel Hannan I was most disappointed by. Although I have never voted Conservative, I respect Hannan and never fail to read his traditionally incisive weekly column. We also have one thing in common in that we both want to do ourselves out of a job – he would like to end the jurisdiction of Brussels over Britain and I would like to end the need for foodbanks. Surprisingly, he denied poverty is rising but, unsurprisingly, stated he cannot convince anyone to believe him.
He rightly challenged the fallibility of the current measure of poverty being 60% below the median income. However, he proposed an alternative metric which is over a century old and then described foodbanks as a “wonderful initiative”. Having spent 15 years pioneering foodbanks, “wonderful” is not the first word I think of when confronted by a formerly middle-class mother forced to give up breastfeeding her six week old son after becoming malnourished due to events that would derail any of us.
Philip Alston asserted in his recent report, “statistics alone cannot capture the full picture of poverty…” but Hannan’s analysis is entirely statistical. We must observe the stories behind the statistics to truly understand poverty. The absence of dialogue on poverty in the contest for a new Prime Minister and a denial of its growth will do nothing to unearth the roots that nourish poverty, let alone find ways to eliminate it.