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  • Author or Editor: Ruth Levitas x
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This chapter draws on the legacy of Eleanor Rathbone, an early twentieth-century British campaigner for family allowances, and her aspirations for a society without child poverty. It deploys ‘utopia as method’ both to explore the inadequacy of current policies aimed at reducing child poverty and to consider the principles on which society would have to be organised to ensure the effective eradication, rather than merely alleviation, of child poverty. Utopia as method entails looking systemically and holistically at social institutions, social processes and their outcomes. The core principles identified as necessary to eliminating child poverty are: promoting equality; revaluing care, and considering the total social organisation of labour in society both within and beyond the market; rethinking what counts as production and wealth; universal child benefit and a guaranteed basic income or citizen’s income; making sustainability central; and prioritising human flourishing and well-being. The chapter focuses primarily on the UK, but the framework has general relevance. It broadens out into a global perspective on the kind of society that would secure the rights of children to economic and social security and the development of the child’s personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential.

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It is commonplace now to assert that social exclusion is not a state but a process. It is neither; it is a concept, and a concept which may be more or less useful in describing or explaining reality. Although the term has been current in social policy circles for nearly two decades, it is less than two years since it became prominent in public political discourse in Britain. The term ‘social exclusion’ played almost no part in Labour's pre-election lexicon. Within months, in August 1997, it was a central concept. In December 1997, the Social Exclusion Unit (SEU) was set up, for two years in the first instance, based in the Cabinet Office and reporting to the Prime Minister. The aim of the Unit is to develop coordinated policies to address social exclusion, described as ‘joined-up policies for joined-up problems’. It has no spending budget, since its purpose is to make recommendations to the contributory government departments, with a view to directing existing funding more effectively. Part of its brief for 1998 was the development of key indicators of social exclusion, which could be used in evaluating Government policy – and presumably the success of the Unit itself. However, by February 1999, this task had been removed from the Unit as the question of social exclusion became more central to Government policy and Alistair Darling announced a commitment to an annual audit of poverty and social exclusion. The following month, Blair made a further commitment to the abolition of child poverty over a 20-year period, reiterated in his 1999 Conference speech. In October 1999, the Department of Social Security published Opportunity for all: Tackling poverty and social exclusion (DSS, 1999).

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The millennium survey

This book is the most authoritative study of poverty and social exclusion in Britain at the start of the 21st century. It reports on the most comprehensive survey of poverty and social exclusion, ever to be undertaken in Britain: The Poverty and Social Exclusion Survey. This enormously rich data set records levels of poverty not just in terms of income and wealth but by including information about the goods and services which the British public say are necessary to avoid poverty.

The relationship between poverty and factors such as age, gender and paid work are explored, as well as other social issues such as crime and neighbourhood disadvantage.

Poverty and social exclusion in Britain charts the extent and nature of material and social deprivation and exclusion in Britain at the end of the 20th century; makes the first ever measurement of the extent of social exclusion based on a survey specifically designed for this purpose and provides a clear conceptual understanding of poverty and social exclusion from both an national and international perspective.

This important book should be read by officials and policy makers in national and local government, NGOs, charities and voluntary organisations dealing with poverty and social exclusion. It will also be required reading for academics and students of social policy, sociology, public health, economics and politics.

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The concepts of social exclusion and inclusion are now firmly entrenched in both British and European government policy, as well as having increasingly wide currency outside the European Union (EU) in international agencies such as the International Labour Office (ILO), United Nations, UNESCO and the World Bank (Gore and Figueiredo, 1997; Estivill, 2003). This chapter focuses primarily on the deployment of ‘social exclusion’ in the United Kingdom, in the context of EU policy, although many of the issues have wider application. The first part of the chapter addresses the development of definitions and indicators of social exclusion at UK national and at EU levels, showing that the distinctively social aspects of social exclusion have not been at the centre of these debates. The second part of the chapter outlines the findings of the Poverty and Social Exclusion (PSE) Survey itself, whose unique feature is its direct attention to exclusion from social relations and patterns of sociability. Two key points emerge. First, poverty has a profound effect on some, though not all, aspects of social participation. An objective relationship can be demonstrated here, casting doubt on the significance of the distinction between chosen and enforced non-participation. Second, although paid work is correlated with increased social participation on some measures, there is tentative evidence that this is principally an indirect effect mediated by poverty, and that paid work itself may in some cases limit social inclusion. ‘Economic inactivity’ does not, in itself, necessarily lead to exclusion from social relations. These findings cast doubt on the emphasis on work that is central to both European and UK policy.

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The range of topics covered in the chapters of this volume illustrates the extent and richness of the data gathered by the Poverty and Social Exclusion (PSE) Survey. Other researchers are increasingly working with the archived data set1, but this book will remain the core summary of its methodology and findings. The conclusions of this analysis are theoretical, methodological and empirical – and, in the end, political, since there are some crucial messages that should inform social policy and the anti-poverty agenda.

The defining characteristics of the PSE Survey in its approach to poverty are twofold. First, it is based on a consensual measure, a minimum standard of living supported by a majority of the population. Second, that standard of living is conceived in concrete rather than abstract terms, and specified in terms of agreed necessities. This entails the direct measurement of deprivation in terms of the lack of material and social necessities, rather than indirect assessment on the basis of income alone.

The PSE Survey method of scientifically measuring poverty in terms of both low income and deprivation of necessities generates alarming figures for the numbers and proportion of the population living in want at the beginning of the new millennium. About one in every four people, nearly 25% of the population of Britain, were living in poverty by this measure. What this means in terms of the millions of adults and children forced to go without adequate housing, food and clothing is set out at the start of the Introduction, and elaborated throughout the book.

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The Poverty and Social Exclusion (PSE) Survey is the only comprehensive source of information on the extent and nature of deprivation in contemporary Britain. At the turn of the millennium, there were more people living in or on the margins of poverty than at any time in British history. According to this most rigorous survey of poverty and social exclusion ever undertaken, by the end of 1999 approximately 14 million people in Britain, or 25% of the population, were objectively living in poverty. In previous centuries, higher proportions of the British population have been poor and their poverty has often been more severe. But rapid population growth in the 20th century means that there are now more people experiencing poverty than at any previous time. However, the growth in poverty is not only the result of population increase. In the 1980s, economic restructuring coupled with changes in the tax and benefit systems led to both widening inequality and rapid rises in poverty and social exclusion (Pantazis and Gordon, 2000). Between 1983 and 1990, the number of households who could scientifically be described as living in poverty increased by almost 50%. In 1983, 14% of households were living in poverty and, by 1990, this figure had risen to 21% (Gordon and Pantazis, 1997). Poverty continued to increase during the 1990s and, by 1999, the proportion of households living in poverty had reached almost one in four.

The main results of the PSE Survey are that:

  • Roughly nine million people in Britain cannot afford adequate housing.

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