Taking Poverty Back from the Professionals

“There is great power when real people experiencing real hardship take back the reins of the conversation from the professionals.”

Ewan Gurr: ‘Taking poverty back from the professionals’ – Evening Telegraph

This article appeared in the print edition of the Evening Telegraph 18/01/2021

It is not every day a picture a friend took on her phone ends up on the front of a national paper, sparking a wide-ranging political debate on poverty and becoming a central topic in the dialogue at Prime Minister’s Questions. Such was the case when I watched PMQs and picked up The Guardian last Wednesday upon which said image was printed, revealing the dire contents of a free school meal for one of her daughters, which should have been valued at £30 but was estimated at only £5.

What has become clear is there is a problem concerning how we discuss poverty. Ruth Lister – a life peer in the House of Lords – wrote a book entitled ‘Poverty’ in which she states: “There are ethical issues involved when writing a book about poverty from a position of relative affluence.” Darren McGarvey, articulates this problem in his bestselling ‘Poverty Safari’ like this: “… the conversation about poverty is usually dominated by people with little direct experience of being poor.”

Take Marcus Rashford, who became the face of the free school meal campaign in 2020 and turned this photo viral after sharing it. Last year, he shared his story of growing up in poverty and prompted Government action. What Rashford has done is stellar but why did it take a person with status, a voice and a profile to awaken an anaesthetised public and political class in a year hamstrung by a global pandemic? Why are the voices of children and families experiencing poverty never enough?    

Let us remember, this is a footballer who earns in 10 days what the Prime Minister and Scotland’s First Minister earn combined in an entire year, who has bought five luxury properties in the last four months and earned himself a Sports Personality of the Year award and an MBE for driving this. Former Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale recently gushed: “He’s walking on water”. Meanwhile, people in poverty watch and wonder why their voice matters not.

One of the organisations calling for a reinterpretation of how we discuss poverty is the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), who released its UK Poverty Report last Friday. However, JRF is also advertising three Director roles at £98,000 a pop to help “deepen our understanding of the causes and nature of poverty”. So attractive are these roles that the Economic Advisor to the Chancellor shared the role online saying: “Great package”.

What my friend, who preferred not to be named, showed us last week is there is power when real people experiencing real hardship take back the reins of the conversation from the professionals. For as long as we continue to engage in the deification of those who no longer live in the jaws of poverty rather than amplifying the voices of those who still do, we restring the prevailing tapestry of inequality that prevents the elevation of the very people we should be seeking to emancipate.