Are the “poor” still with us?

A fellow academic recently commented that the phrase “housing for the poor”, which was used in the title of an issue of Economic Affairs I edited in 2008, was, to quote, “terminology that went out with Dickens”. Presumably this was meant to show how terribly out of date I was, or perhaps that I was subscribing to a Victorian view of dealing with poverty. Despite the apparent ignorance it shows of Dickens, this comment set me thinking on the terms that are commonly used by academics to describe the poor.

Indeed it is now very rare that the word “poor” is actually used. Instead we hear things like “low-income households”, “socially excluded”, “vulnerable”, or, my favourite, “families with complex needs”. The idea seems to be that if we rename a problem we have somehow transformed it. Moreover, suggesting that the problem is “social” or “complex” and relates to “vulnerability” implies that poverty can only be addressed by those with special insight into the problem. It is an article of faith amongst social scientists that poverty is caused by structural inequalities which are beyond the scope of the individuals themselves to solve. Hence the problem of poverty needs to be labelled accordingly.

Perhaps then we need to reassert the use of the term “poor” to remind us that we are referring to individual people with specific problems that need to be tackled, rather than relying on euphemisms that point the blame at anonymous social forces that only experts can identify.

The poor are always with us, if we define it on a relative basis, though of course the precise identity of those who are poor may change from time to time: it is not literally the same individuals or households who are always ‘poor’. Similarly with the rich.Those who want to ’solve’ the ‘problem’ of poverty always seem inclined to do so on a national basis. Perhaps we should call them ‘national egalitarians’, since I have sometimes upset them in the past by calling them ‘national socialists’.

Yes they are still with us. On no less an authority than Jesus Christ himself:“The poor you will always have with you” Matthew 26:11.

With most of these “redefinitions” language is used that only self-appointed experts understand. But, paradoxically, the words generally have alternative meanings to the rest of us that suggest that their use is an attempt to “load” the debate. For example “socially excluded” gives the impression that we have a problem that “society” must do something about (it is, of course, possible to be rich and socially excluded). All families have complex needs, don’t they? Indeed, that is why we must leave those needs to the family to meet because they cannot be understood from outside the family. We know what (material) poverty means. Let’s stick with it (though happy to ditch Dickens).

My favourite is the phrase “Poverty is a multi-dimensional concept”. It means everything and nothing, and it’s an effective way of implying that anyone who wants to limit the role of the state to providing a safety net is a narrow-minded materialist, who does not understand the complex needs of the poor.
In reality, this phraseology can justify just about any “community-based” social programme, and the great beauty is that it is virtually impossible to investigate whether or not a programme has delivered any tangible results.
It is almost as if the poor feed the social workers, not vice versa.

Kris has got it right, apart from the first five words of his last sentence.

Prof. Myddleton mentions how he upsets some people; I find a good way of annoying people who work in social housing is to refer to them as ‘gaolers of the poor’. The poor may feed social workers – and housing workers – but they are also the only group in society that is consistently experimented on, with high rise housing being only one particularly glaring example. Public sector workers are able to use other people’s money to try out their ideas on people who have no other alternative but to rely on the state.

Low income households is the most accurate and least loaded term. Socially excluded is a curious one – why ‘excluded’?. Person A with less income than person B is always going to be ‘excluded’ because they have less money. That is a truism. It also perpetrates the ‘them and us’ concept; the poor are excluded and the rest of us aren’t. More likely they are excluded because of the poverty trap, and the high effective marginal tax rates the poor face as their benefits are withdrawn. But do social workers campaign on this? Social policy causes as many problems as it solves.

The poor are always with us, if we define it on a relative basis, though of course the precise identity of those who are poor may change from time to time: it is not literally the same individuals or households who are always ‘poor’. Similarly with the rich.Those who want to ’solve’ the ‘problem’ of poverty always seem inclined to do so on a national basis. Perhaps we should call them ‘national egalitarians’, since I have sometimes upset them in the past by calling them ‘national socialists’.

Yes they are still with us. On no less an authority than Jesus Christ himself:“The poor you will always have with you” Matthew 26:11.

With most of these “redefinitions” language is used that only self-appointed experts understand. But, paradoxically, the words generally have alternative meanings to the rest of us that suggest that their use is an attempt to “load” the debate. For example “socially excluded” gives the impression that we have a problem that “society” must do something about (it is, of course, possible to be rich and socially excluded). All families have complex needs, don’t they? Indeed, that is why we must leave those needs to the family to meet because they cannot be understood from outside the family. We know what (material) poverty means. Let’s stick with it (though happy to ditch Dickens).

My favourite is the phrase “Poverty is a multi-dimensional concept”. It means everything and nothing, and it’s an effective way of implying that anyone who wants to limit the role of the state to providing a safety net is a narrow-minded materialist, who does not understand the complex needs of the poor.
In reality, this phraseology can justify just about any “community-based” social programme, and the great beauty is that it is virtually impossible to investigate whether or not a programme has delivered any tangible results.
It is almost as if the poor feed the social workers, not vice versa.

Kris has got it right, apart from the first five words of his last sentence.

Prof. Myddleton mentions how he upsets some people; I find a good way of annoying people who work in social housing is to refer to them as ‘gaolers of the poor’. The poor may feed social workers – and housing workers – but they are also the only group in society that is consistently experimented on, with high rise housing being only one particularly glaring example. Public sector workers are able to use other people’s money to try out their ideas on people who have no other alternative but to rely on the state.

Low income households is the most accurate and least loaded term. Socially excluded is a curious one – why ‘excluded’?. Person A with less income than person B is always going to be ‘excluded’ because they have less money. That is a truism. It also perpetrates the ‘them and us’ concept; the poor are excluded and the rest of us aren’t. More likely they are excluded because of the poverty trap, and the high effective marginal tax rates the poor face as their benefits are withdrawn. But do social workers campaign on this? Social policy causes as many problems as it solves.

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