A focus on poverty obscures the need to tackle inequality

Recently I argued that poverty should be seen as a product of inequality because we live in a finite world where income and wealth is highly concentrated. This, necessarily, leaves vast numbers of people poor. It is, of course, highly understandable that international agencies, governments and people across the world wish to focus on the needs of those in poverty. But poverty is really only a symptom of underlying inequality. If money and resources were distributed more evenly, then poverty could be reduced or even eliminated

The idea of poverty as a stand-alone condition somehow unconnected to overall income and wealth distribution has two rather unfortunate side effects. First it encourages the idea that the poor are some sort of disconnected “other”. The argument follows that they are not like decent, hard-working, respectable people and their problems are innate (so it’s really all their fault) and are far more complicated than just a shortage of money. This dislocation is very convenient for rich people, especially when the idea is rammed into public consciousness on a daily basis and becomes a cultural norm. People (and governments) can then conclude that there is little point in tackling excessive wealth at the top of society since the problems that need tackling are clearly all confined within the poorer end of society. Inequality therefore remains unaddressed and high levels of poverty persist.

Second, the focus on poverty also allows the rich (should they wish to try and help) to disport themselves across the domestic and world stage as a force for good. This further obscures the root problem of their excessive share of income and wealth which is left largely unexamined and unquestioned. All of which probably explains why some rich people are keen to tackle poverty but most of them do not want to talk about inequality.

Poverty does not exist in a vacuum. We cannot reduce poverty without reducing extreme wealth. We have had decades of significant economic growth since the Second World War and still unacceptable numbers of people live in poverty while others live lives of great comfort or even extravagance. Planetary limits now pose further serious questions over what economic growth can do for us long term, so the need to reduce inequality becomes ever more urgent and a focus on poverty alone becomes ever more inadequate.

Bill Kerry, Secretary of The Equality Trust