Poverty, inequality and ‘the common good’ …

James Henderson, University of Edinburgh

The Yunus Centre for Social Business and Health at Glasgow Caledonian University recently held the first John Pearce Memorial Lecture. John Pearce, who died in 2011, had committed across his working life to ‘collective and community enterprise’ in pursuit of ‘the common good’. He worked in the 1960s in community development abroad, in the 1970s as part of the ‘legendary’ (UK) National Community Development Projects (CDPs), and then, from the 1980s, in developing social business –now termed social enterprise – in Scotland.

Working also as a researcher and writer, John Pearce influenced many through two key publications: in 1993, At the Heart of the Community Economy; and in 2003, Social Enterprise in Anytown (1). I’m certainly one of those he influenced through these books and the powerful commitment to the common good he evokes. So, as part of Challenge Poverty Week, I’m keen to think further as to how such thinking has and continues to be concerned with ‘tackling’ poverty and inequality. Particularly, given the increasing policy focus on ‘community’ and third sector over these last five decades … co-incidentally in parallel to my own lifespan (thus far).

At its simplest, the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ (2) tracking of income inequality in UK through the Gini co-efficient marks the significant rise in such inequality during the 1980s from the historically low levels of the 1960s and 1970. This very broadly-speaking plateaus from the mid-1990s onwards, subject to on-going ups and downs, with current Conservative UK Government policy now predicted as a likely ‘up’ and increase in inequality. Academic discussions are on-going as to the detail of how poverty and inequality connect, see for instance last year’s Challenging Poverty blog. However, the broad tradition of thinking within community development, generated through the CDPs’ action research, has asserted a political economic analysis of poverty as generated by structural inequalities. John Pearce, for instance, argues against the ‘social pathologising’ of individual (working class) neighbourhoods, pointing instead to the economic and historical changes that have impacted on them.

Given this long-term policy focus, or rhetoric at least, on ‘community’ and the third sector, how should this be understood in relation to increasing inequality? Have the two unwittingly become part of the process of sustaining inequality? Would things have been still worse without them? Is the situation more complex than any such simple statements? As crucially, what should their future roles be in seeking social change?

As befitting the community development tradition, John Pearce provides a practical tool and model (3) for supporting practical and widespread discussion of the economic, social and political workings of society. He outlines three sectors or ‘systems’ of economic activity – each potentially working across neighbourhood, local, regional, national and global dimensions – that I’d summarise as follows:

  • Private – ‘the market’ and largely privately-owned organisations that trade within it – whilst recognising that publicly and socially-owned organisations will trade too;
  • Public – ‘the state’ including government, public sector and other official bodies – with emphasis on planning and service provision … also investment and distribution of income.
  • Third – of socially and community-owned organisations and networks: including social enterprises, cooperatives, voluntary organisations, trades unions and faith-based bodies etc.

A seemingly simple framework, perhaps, yet its mix of local-to-global, different forms of ownership and organising, and different and in themselves diverse ‘systems’ for coordinating economic and social activity, has the potential to support any group in generating increasingly complex discussions as to what a more equal society, concerned for social solidarity, would ‘look like’.

Pearce uses it to illustrate an intriguing cooperative, mutual vision of society and economy: one that emphasises the role of social ownership in ‘working for the common good’, and yet is not naïve as to the respective roles of the state and the market. Importantly, his model can also support wider political economic discussions of the contributions of state, market and ‘community’. It can explore insights, for instance, from thinking on a social democratic post-Keynesian welfare state; a ‘green’ egalitarian steady-state economy; and so on … and likewise how free market (neo-liberal) approaches have increased the scale of poverty and inequality since the 1970s.

His model also gives us the space to think further about the role of such a third system in working for equality and the redistribution of resources within society … rather than as simply and solely a means to deliver local services and build social capital. Pearce’s own insight here: the need for independent, socially-owned organisations and enterprises, controlled by working people – the common usage, rather than the current Chancellor’s – and their communities, with the capability and confidence to challenge current norms, explore alternative approaches, and work for ‘the common good’.

Dr James Henderson is a social researcher working at the University of Edinburgh – the views expressed above are his own.


(1) This blog draws from these two publications, and John Pearce’s chapter in The Social Economy: International Perspectives on Economic Solidarity (edited by Amin, 2009).

(2) View the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ report Living Standards, Poverty and Inequality in the UK: 2015 (Bellfield et al.; p.32) at: http://www.ifs.org.uk/uploads/publications/comms/R107.pdf.

(3) Pearce’s three systems model of the economy appears first in Social Enterprise in Anytown (2003). It is reproduced in similar vein in Mike Bull’s (2008: p.5) Balance: Unlocking Performance in Social Enterprise, view at: http://www.socialenterprisebalance.org/docs/Unlocking_performance.pdf.