Book Review: Poverty (2nd ed.) by Ruth Lister

The last year has put poverty firmly back on the political agenda. As the pandemic and lockdown swept across the UK, it was abundantly clear that while we might all have been in the same sea, we had very different boats. That is why the second edition of Ruth Lister’s comprehensive and essential book Poverty is so welcome.

At the core of this book is the ‘growing demand for poverty to be understood as powerlessness and a denial of fundamental rights and for the voices of those in poverty to be heard in public debates’. With great skill Lister takes the reader through definitions and measures of poverty, and examines inequality, social divisions and the differential experience of poverty in an accessible and authoritative way.

For me, the chapters dealing with othering, agency, human rights and citizenship struck a strong chord. Who decides who the poor are? How are they being represented? Who speaks on their behalf? These are all very relevant questions. They are also all too often overlooked or neatly answered by the ideological lens of those with power. I would strongly recommend that anybody who is involved with the ‘Build Back Better’ movement, the Green New Deal or the ‘levelling-up agenda’ read these chapters.

It is often, sadly, true to say that on both the left and right there is a tendency to talk about rather than interact and work with the ‘poor’. Lister champions participatory research where people play an active role and become creators rather than just consumers of narratives. Much of the pioneering work in this area has been developed in the Global South, and it could well be the case that there are many skills and experience in the Global South that would be of benefit to the development of the British government’s levelling-up agenda. The key point being that the ‘poor’ are not an ‘other’ to be discussed and analysed like laboratory rats, but people with hopes, dreams and aspirations, who often find that from birth they are systemically disadvantaged. In many cases, against all the odds, every day they are showing creativity and agility to overcome adversity. It is this strength and determination that policymakers need to understand and work with.

Any discussion of poverty must end up being political, and Lister does not shy away from this. She concludes by making a powerful case for a politics of redistribution, recognition and respect. Reading the book, it is hard to disagree with her, but in many ways this is where the harsh world we live in clashes with calls for the ‘common good’. I would like to believe that after all the suffering of the pandemic those in power will realise we are living in an unjust and unfair world, and will be willing to give back to the community. However, I am not holding my breath, and sense polarising debates about what constitutes a ‘good society’ and how we fund it will dominate political discourse over the coming decade. What this book clearly shows is that, for those who claim to be on the side of the poor, there is much to be learned from seeking grassroots, bottom-up solutions where the voices and lived experiences of those you seek to support shape and drive the agenda.

This is an essential, comprehensive and rewarding read for anyone who has an interest in understanding and tackling poverty – be they a community worker, social worker, youth worker, think-tank policy wonk, academic, local councillor or member of Parliament. I highly recommend that, alongside putting regular shifts in at your local food bank, you find the time to purchase a copy and read it.

Kieran Breen has worked in development in Africa, the UK and Latin, Central and North America. He is currently the CEO of Leicestershire Cares and lectures on youth and global issues at De Montfort University. Follow his work on Twitter at @Leicscares.

The second edition of Poverty is published by Polity. Order a copy here.

Ruth Lister will be launching Poverty (2nd ed.) on Friday 5th February at a special event from 6pm to 7.30pm. Register here to join the call.

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