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The poor are always with us so what are our responsibilities to them?

I have written before about my interpretation of cultural theory. This framework argues that there are four foundational ways of tackling ‘wicked’ problems; the hierarchical, the individualistic, the solidaristic and the fatalistic. Good solutions, as I argued in my 2012 annual lecture, combine the insights, techniques and motivations of the first three while being aware of the existence of the fourth (fatalism is by its nature not about solutions).

Such ‘clumsy’ solutions are difficult: firstly, because each way of thinking is in large part a critique of the others; also because changes in the nature of the problem and the context in which it occurs will upset any equilibrium. The classic example of the latter phenomenon is how innovation has shifted the cutting edge of technology from a resource for hierarchy (main frame computers) to a resource for individualism (personal computing and communication), and to a lesser extent solidarity (social media campaigns).

But an under-developed aspect of this framework is fatalism. As I have said, it differs from the other three paradigms in not being oriented to solutions; it is not a source of power. Also, it is not clear – in functional terms - what fatalism does. Without being overly teleological, the passive nature of fatalism makes it feel conceptually lightweight and socially irrelevant.

Of course, from some religious perspectives - Buddhism most fully - fatalism represents not just the most credible world view but a higher way of being. Many philosophers too see fatalism not as an abandonment of engagement in society but as the consequence of deep reflection on the world and the human condition. It was Freud who said that a good outcome of psychoanalysis was to exchange ‘hysterical misery for everyday unhappiness’.

Fatalism may then be an important component of individual wisdom and spiritual insight, but what about it as a component of social action? Surely here it is pretty useless?

Thinking about poverty suggests otherwise.

The three active paradigms all offer answers to poverty. Individualists want to help the poor pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, freeing them from dependency to be agents in the market. The hierarchical perspective seeks to use strategy and bureaucratic allocation to meet the basic needs of the poor and channel their behaviour into socially useful directions. The solidaristic perspective seeks to abolish poverty by transforming the social system and abolishing injustice. Current Government policy is a combination of the hierarchical and individualistic, with occasional bits of solidaristic rhetoric thrown in to disorientate critics.

Underlying all these approaches tends to be an assumption that the poor are just like us (by whom I mean the kind of educated, privileged people who devise theories and strategies about the poor). If only their aspirations were unleashed (individualism), their lives ordered (hierarchy) or their collective demands mobilised (solidarity) then poverty could be abolished.

But the simple fact – and I know this statement opens me up to all kinds of caricature - is that the poor are not like us. People mired in poverty tend to be badly educated and they are much more likely than other people to suffer from mental or physical illness. Moreover they find day to day life in a world of growing complexity hard to deal with.

In case this sounds both anecdotal as well as patronising here are two extracts from a recent CESI study of 25,000 poor households in Brighton, a group which has on average lost £2300 per household per year as a consequence of benefits reforms since 2010:

This study found little evidence of desire or capacity to move to affordable accommodation or to find employment as a solution to their reduced benefit income. Overall, residents were in ‘crisis management’ mode – dealing as best they could with individual crises around benefits, money, housing, family and so on, with the underlying drivers of those crises almost always going unresolved

Residents’ knowledge and understanding was found to be weaker for two main reasons: first, a lack of trust in official communications, and/or secondly, due to lower capacity to understand written communications. This former group tended to ignore communications and relied instead on their own networks for information. The latter group included those with learning difficulties, dyslexia or health conditions. Some vulnerable residents had had home visits from Council staff, and as a consequence were much clearer about reform impacts and support options.

(Given council funding cuts, one thing we can be pretty sure of is that those council visits will become vanishingly rare.)

But it is not the (understandably) fatalistic outlook of many poor people that is my point; it is the need for the rest of us to respond to the challenge of poverty with humanity.

George Osborne’s living wage budget bombshell can be endorsed on grounds that are individualistic (it will improve work incentives and help people stand on their own two feet), hierarchical (it will save the state money and reduce complexity) and solidaristic (it helps the lowest paid). Yet, the net effect of the Osborne package of a wage rise and benefit changes is authoritatively estimated to be to remove £8 billion per annum from poorer households. Moreover, by raising wages in the context of the free movement of labour, its effect (combined with benefit cuts) in many areas will be to attract more incoming immigrants while leaving badly educated, poorly motivated long-time residents both poorer and further away from the labour market.

I know I am not saying anything new and that there are many people with more credibility than me in making this point, but ask yourself this: as you listen to politicians and commentators offering individualistic, hierarchical and solidaristic solutions to poverty, which may or may not work in the long term for some of the poor for some of the time, what are they saying about the millions of poor people who are certain to be with us for the foreseeable future?

I am all for more effective individualistic, hierarchical and solidaristic efforts at poverty alleviation. However, if we were willing to admit some fatalism about our current and conceivable capacity to solve this wicked problem, might that also incline us to greater humanity in the face of the suffering of our fellow citizens? 


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