When we talk about poverty, we need to talk about justice

In the UK, governments have discussed poverty and anti-poverty strategies for many years. They set targets and talked about the economic and political programs to reduce poverty. When the targets are not met, the governments redefine the target or the delivery date. The debate often focuses on how to measure it. Most officials and experts agree on four methods to measure poverty: relative, absolute, material, and social mobility.

  • In relative terms – This is measured against other incomes. The measure describes the income needed to participate in activities seen to be normal by society. The measure is at 60% below average income.
  • In absolute terms – does a family’s income supply them with the means for subsistence? This is measured at 60% below the median income in a particular year, not adjusted for inflation.
  • In material terms – can and do families access the material goods and services to participate fully in society?
  • In terms of social mobility does a person or parent’s income determine their life chances or their children’s outcomes?[1]

What these have in common is that they are all based on measuring poverty in economic terms.

If it can be measured it can be managed.

Poverty is often, but not always, reduced to an economic issue. As an economic issue, it becomes a technical issue and not an ethical issue. When a target is not met, the government can claim it has improved its chances” at meeting the target. The target becomes a symbol of commitment rather than a goal. A decent government is committed to reducing or eliminating or alleviating poverty. The challenge is to turn that goal into a practical programme that will deliver it. Yet, the focus on delivery targets often comes at the price of the political question that poverty creates: the question of justice.

We will always have the poor which is why we always need politics and justice.

Poverty is a political question because its source relates to the nature of the society we want government to create and protect.  In that sense, poverty may not have a solution and remain a permanent question for all governments. As Jesus said, we will always have the poor.[2] People will always make choices that lead to consequences. As a result, in any society, there will be people of different outcomes and different talents. Christ’s statement may force us to understand that poverty reflects the nature of the society we want and have. How do we deal with the poor?

Can we create a just society with or without a revolution?

A decent society that promotes the common good is one where the poor are able to participate in the system not just live on its economic or political margins. When the poor lack access to justice it reflects the type of society we have.[3] When the poor are denied justice or an active participation in society, they cannot receive justice. Without justice, poverty cannot be addressed. Therein we see the political question that governments want to avoid. Justice, in that sense, produces a political problem that cannot be reduced to an economic target. The reason is that it requires a view of the common good, which runs contrary to the preferred approach to handling poverty. A government can focus on the symptoms of poverty, its material outcomes, to avoid the question of what type of society it creates through education and laws.[4] Unless we are prepared to discuss justice, we cannot begin to talk about poverty. Perhaps, this is the lesson we have yet to learn from the debate over austerity and its effect on poverty.

[1] http://www.cesi.org.uk/keypolicy/child-poverty

[2] Matthew 26:11

[3] An interesting approach to this issue is the Centre for Social Justice. They have pursued the idea of putting social justice at the heart of British Politics. What we find though is that despite their best intentions, they too, soon revert to an economic solution view of the issue. If we had the right policies and programmes in place we would deal with social justice. Instead, they need to look at how society understands social justice and what is needed to change that view of social justice, and justice generally, to improve social justice for dealing with poverty.

[4] Here is where we rarely see politicians or groups connecting the overall policies and procedures across education, criminal justice, welfare, and economic policies to consider the society that they want to create. One can find it only by default, by what is not being done or said, rather than what is intended. Moreover, one rarely finds it specifically mentioned except in platitudes or platforms. To put it another way, who is for poverty? Who is for ignorance? Who is for unemployment or family breakdowns?

About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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