PREVENT POVERTY FIRST: the Neglected Part of the Strategy against Poverty

Adrian Sinfield, Professor Emeritus of Social Policy, The University of Edinburgh

Beveridge believed poverty should be prevented, not just alleviated. In his 1942 report he wrote: ‘Abolition of want [his term for poverty] just before this war was easily within the economic resources of the community; want was a needless scandal due to not taking the trouble to prevent it’ (Beveridge report, 1942, para. 445). Much is quoted from the Beveridge report to justify one policy proposal or another, but this has seldom been.

He put it so clearly: how do we justify having to learn this all over again more than 70 years later? Once stated, it is obvious: it cannot be sufficient just to have mechanisms that help to lift people out of poverty once they have fallen into it. And given all the knowledge and experience that we have acquired in years of high poverty, we are well aware that being in poverty has costs, personal, social and financial, for the individual, the family, the community, the whole society and the economy. So neglecting prevention is all the more careless, wasteful and generally irresponsible.

Prevention is not only cheaper than cure: it is generally easier and more democratic. Policies do not have to depend on targeting those who have already been singled out by lack of resources, although good preventive policies may use other criteria to target. Unless we prevent poverty very much more effectively, it will only spread and deepen (Sinfield, 2014). This short piece sets out three of the key points that in my view are essential to more and better prevention.

1) We cannot expect to prevent poverty without more decent jobs and at fair wages. ‘The evidence is clear that the root causes of families being in poverty are worklessness or low earnings (either not working enough hours or not being paid enough)’ (DE & DWP, 2014, p 7). We have neglected what Beveridge said: full employment means jobs ‘at fair wages, of such a kind, and so located that the unemployed can reasonably be expected to take them’ (Beveridge, 1944, p 18). Higher rates of poverty and poor pay tend to go together, and low pay is ‘much more common in nations where the labour sector is weak, government does little to manage the economy in the service of all, and public participation is less than the case in other countries’ (Raphael, 2014). There is urgent need for more action by all involved – employers, unions and government – to prevent poverty by ending the low-pay no-pay poverty cycle that leaves workers and their families in poverty and under pressure (Shildrick et al, 2012 b). A ‘living wage’ should be encouraged but only as a start: but it is not enough to live long on.

2) We have to strengthen the preventive powers of the welfare state. The lack of generous provision in the welfare state is ‘the dominant cause’ of the high poverty that persists in some ‘affluent Western democracies’ argued Brady in his analysis of the experience of 18 countries over more than 30 years (Brady, 2009, p 166). For people of working age and their families the UK has already undermined much preventive effectiveness and is now moving back from Beveridge towards the poor law. Increasingly, income support is only being provided for people once they are already in poverty instead of providing enough to keep them out of it. Inadequate benefits can serve to keep the recipient in poverty.

Total income support should be set above the poverty line and in accordance with established Minimum Income Standards to ensure that ‘every citizen willing to serve according to [their] powers has at all times an income sufficient to meet [their] responsibilities’ (Beveridge, 1942, para 444). In the European Union ‘rich, high employment countries where social spending is low end up with high poverty. This leads to the conclusion that, if it is possible to attain a low risk of poverty without substantial spending, it has not yet been demonstrated’ (Cantillon, 2009, p 240).

The preventive value of a decent social security system in helping to maintain consumer spending and so maintain demand and employment is considerable. It acts as an effective automatic stabiliser, economic and social. The importance of this role has been neglected: cutting and freezing benefits only undermines other strategies to boost the economy as well as adding to poverty (Sinfield, 2012).

3) We cannot expect to prevent poverty better without significant reductions in economic inequality. ‘Where poverty is widespread… there has been a failure to institutionalize equality’ (Brady, 2009, p 6). Measures to promote greater equality across all groups can help to prevent and tackle the greater risk of poverty, and long-term poverty. Despite some improvements, women’s concentration in low-paid part-time jobs through occupational segregation and lack of affordable childcare continues ‘to make them more vulnerable to poverty and also make it more difficult for them to establish themselves in secure, well-paid employment that protects them from falling back into poverty even when in work’ (Breitenbach and Wasoff, 2007, in a review for the Scottish government). More, therefore, needs to be done to construct a broad equality agenda within which specific goals of preventing and reducing poverty can be achieved. Only in this way can a successful attack be made on ‘the major drivers of poverty, such as high levels of wage and wealth inequality’ that undermine preventive policies (Harker, 2006, p 9, writing for the DWP).

Much more, of course, needs to be done to prevent poverty much more effectively. To fund a stronger welfare state, we need a tax system that is both fairer and more fairly implemented without massive concessions in reliefs and subsidies to the better off and corporate bodies. Scotland has already made some progress in challenging discriminatory and demonising language that excludes vulnerable groups and weakens support for preventive and other policies to protect them, but much more is needed (Mooney and Wright, 2011; Shildrick et al, 2011 a; Walker, 2014).

References and further reading

Beveridge, William H. (1942) Report on Social Insurance and Allied Services, London: HMSO.

Beveridge, W. H. (1944) Full Employment in a Free Society, London: Allen and Unwin.

Brady, D. (2009) Rich Democracies Poor Societies: How Politics Explain Poverty, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Breitenbach, Esther and Wasoff, Fran (2007) A Gender Audit of Statistics: comparing the position of women and men in Scotland, Edinburgh: Scottish Government.

Cantillon, B. (2009) ‘The poverty effects of social protection in Europe: EU enlargement and its lessons for developing countries’, in P. Townsend (ed), Building Decent Societies: Rethinking the role of social security in development, Basingstoke: ILO and Palgrave Macmillan, pp 220-241.

DE & DWP (2014), An evidence review of the drivers of child poverty for families in poverty now and for poor children growing up to be poor adults. Cm 8781, London. HM Government.

Harker, Lisa (2006) Delivering on Child Poverty: what would it take? London: DWP.

Mooney, G. and Wright, S. (2011) ‘Presenting and representing poverty’, in J. H. McKendrick et al, Poverty in Scotland 2011, London: CPAG, pp 133-145, and

Raphael, Dennis (2014) ‘The issue is not poor children but family poverty’

Shildrick, T., Furlong, A., MacDonald, R., Roden, J. and Crow, R. (2012a) Are‘Cultures of Worklessness’ passed down the Generations?, York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Shildrick, Tracy, MacDonald, Robert, Webster, Colin and Garthwaite, Kayleigh (2012b) Poverty and Insecurity: Life in Low-Pay, No-Pay Britain, Bristol: Policy Press.

Sinfield, Adrian (2012) ‘Strengthening the prevention of social insecurity’, International Social Security Review, 65:1, pp 89-106.

Sinfield, Adrian (2014) ‘How can we reduce child poverty without improving its prevention?’, Poverty, 147, pp 14-17.

Walker, Robert with many others (2014) The Shame of Poverty: Global perspectives, Oxford: Oxford University Press.