Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 01 Feb 2021

Poverty (second edition) by Ruth Lister

The last year has firmly put poverty back on the political agenda. As the pandemic and lockdown swept across the UK it was abundantly clear, that whilst we might all be in the same sea, we had very different boats. Which is why the second edition of this comprehensive and essential book on 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, 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 ones that all too often are 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, “Green New Deal” or “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 in research 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 benefit the development of the governments 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 policy makers 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, that 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 I 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 voice and lived experience of those you seek to support, shape and drive the agenda.

For anyone who has an interest in understanding and tackling poverty be they a community worker, social worker, youth worker, think tank policy wonk, academics, local councillor or MP, this is an essential, comprehensive and rewarding read. I highly recommend that, along with putting regular shifts in at your local food bank, you find the time to purchase a copy and read it.


Kieran Breen

Poverty was published by Polity order a copy here

Kieran has worked in development in Africa, Latin, Central, North America and the UK. He is currently the CEO of Leicestershire Cares and lectures on youth and global issues at DMU.  Twitter @Leicscares