The BSA is making available online some of the features from our Network magazine (published three times a year and available to members). This excerpt is a feature written about a new edition of Professor Ruth Lister’s book, Poverty.

In the first edition of Ruth Lister’s acclaimed book Poverty, (Polity, 2004) the word ‘destitution’ appeared just once. In the second, which came out last December, it features a dozen times.

“I think people are slowly becoming aware of destitution and that the depth of poverty is becoming more of an issue,” Professor Lister told Network.

“It’s not just that more people are in poverty, particularly children, but they’re falling further below the poverty line. That then can lead to destitution.

“I wrote the first edition in the heyday of New Labour who, for all their faults, were very committed on tackling child poverty – they had a strategy.

“Now this government says it has a strategy but it doesn’t, and what some might call in-work poverty has grown considerably since then. It was already an issue but has become much more of an issue. We have been going backwards and that is very, very distressing.”

The new Universal Credit had mixed effects, she said. “Universal Credit, in some ways, has come out smelling of roses during the pandemic because it coped with a huge increase in the number of claims. All credit to the staff for that.

“But just the fact that it’s assessed on a monthly basis makes the whole process of getting by that much harder. It has been subject to various cuts, which then are driving people further down below the poverty line.

“In terms of the experience of people who claim Universal Credit, the five-week wait for it to start is a real insecurity for people. It can mean that they’re faced with this gap. Many won’t have any savings to fall back on.

“The government’s response is, ‘Oh well, you can take out an advance payment. It’s not a problem’. That then becomes a debt – it’s an interest-free debt, but they didn’t expect to have a debt to the DWP. People are not realising all the implications.”

During the pandemic Universal Credit was lifted by £20 a week, but this is due to be dropped in October. “Everything is about trying to keep the £20 uplift which, in effect, was an acknowledgement that Universal Credit was too low.

“A lot of research has been done during the pandemic that brings out that even with the £20 uplift it is a struggle to get by. That £20 has made a difference for those who were on Universal Credit already. Of course, if the people coming onto it are new, they wouldn’t realise just how low Universal Credit normally is. It’s going to be a terrible shock when they lose that in the autumn.”

It was too early to know the full effects of lockdown, she said, but it was likely that it had made the situation worse for the poorest. “During lockdown, some of the strategies that people had for managing inadequate income they can’t now pursue. You may not be able to turn to your wider social network for help, and your wider family, for instance. It is, clearly, a real struggle and Covid has made that struggle harder.”

Although her book doesn’t present an anti-poverty strategy, she spoke about ways forward, such as making social security a human right.

“Scotland has used legislation which enshrines those ideas. They’ve only got limited powers and, certainly, poverty [reduction] isn’t great in Scotland, but there is at least a recognition of social security as a human right. As a human right it should be paid at a level of decency, and there is a certain recognised dignity of the person.

“Of course, social security can’t do it on its own, so an overall anti-poverty strategy needs to take in improving access to the labour market, which relates to things like childcare and transport. The education system is, clearly, important, but in order to benefit fully from the education system you need to have a reasonable income to start with.”

Universal basic income also offered a way forward. “I was someone who, originally, was very sceptical, but now I’m more sympathetic towards the idea.

“I’m becoming much more aware of insecurity associated with poverty – not labour market insecurity, but the insecurity of managing day-to-day. If you’re not quite sure what’s going to happen to your income, or you might lose it because of a sanction, or you’ve got some money being deducted, it doesn’t create the security that people need.”

She supported the idea of a partial basic income, “a very modest amount of itself. It’s certainly not going to lift people out of poverty because these benefits are rather miserly, but it would provide that kind of basic security.

“I think the reason why basic income has become talked about much more during the pandemic is because the pandemic highlighted the endemic insecurity that so many people face – many people experienced just how easy it is to be thrown into poverty, and had never expected it before.

“There has been so much research, since I wrote the first edition, of what is sometimes called cycling in and out of poverty, that people can sometimes lift themselves out by getting a job, but it can be very short-lived and they can be thrown back in again. There is so much movement in and out of work, in and out of poverty.

“What the pandemic shows clearly is the number of people who haven’t got that much to fall back on if everything goes wrong.”

Tackling poverty has encompassed many strands for Professor Lister. As well as campaigning work with the Child Poverty Action Group, of which she was Director from 1979 to 1987, she has sat in the House of Lords as a life peer since 2011.

“I’d like to think the Lords is useful. It’s a platform and it’s an opportunity to challenge ministers.

“One can ask for written and oral questions to get information about the impact of benefit cuts and so forth. So ministers and civil servants are forced to at least come and respond to questions.

“But it’s pretty difficult doing it during the pandemic when you’re doing it all through Zoom and it’s much harder to hold ministers accountable.

“It is difficult to achieve changes when the government is set on something. Sometimes you can get your concession – there are quite a few people in the Lords who are concerned about poverty from different perspectives, particularly recently around food, and there has been a lot of pressure on the government around school meals and so forth.

“One of the practical things I was able to do – I don’t take the credit for it, because it was an MP who started it with a Private Members’ Bill – was on the cost of school uniforms, which I was then asked to sponsor in the Lords. We got it through, which means that schools now will need to have regard to statutory guidance on keeping down the cost of school uniforms. That is something that children and young people have raised as a really important issue for their families. So in a small way it’s a practical thing that we’ve achieved in the Lords.

“But I get incredibly frustrated sometimes in the Lords around social security reform and welfare reform. I can remember just thinking, ‘what is the point of all this?’ You think you’ve achieved something or you come very close to achieving it and then you lose it.

“But I also have been quite inspired by the work that has been done by organisations like [the anti-poverty and human rights charity] ATD Fourth World, where people in poverty themselves are speaking out. The second edition of my book is dedicated not just to [Professor] Peter Townsend, who was an enormous influence on my work, but also to Moraene Roberts, who was a member of ATD Fourth World and who died horribly young.

“It counteracts the frustration and the sense that we’re going backwards. I do take hope from this kind of work that is being done, and the growing recognition of the importance of listening to what people in poverty have to say.”

She said that in addition to Britain’s strong quantitative work on poverty, more longitudinal qualitative research was needed. “Clearly, it takes more funds but being able to see how, over time, people in poverty manage, and if they get out of poverty and how long for, is important. What are the costs to them and their families? How do they perceive that they are able to change themselves?

“More participatory research is needed. I was arguing for it in the first edition, but it was very rare then.

“There has been more since then, and there is much more involvement now, as I refer in the book to groups of people on social security and people in poverty getting together and making the case themselves.

“I do get the sense when I speak to the people that are still working in academia that it is a very difficult time.

“Obviously last year has been really difficult, with the move to teaching online, but just generally the pressures have got greater. Of course, that makes it harder to carry out poverty research. One of the reasons that I took early retirement is because I was tired of having to write for academic journals, and did not want to be tied down in that way.

“The work that has been done during the pandemic has really been very impressive. I suspect it’s despite the universities, rather than because of them.

“I don’t try in my book to present an anti-poverty strategy because partly this is a book about the concept of poverty, and it’s not supposed to be simply about the UK. I’ve tried to make it not too time specific.

“I’ve updated a lot in the book – there has been an enormous amount written about poverty that is relevant to the story I tell. I became very aware, after the first edition, of the fact that I’d paid so little attention to economic insecurity.

“Although it’s an academic book, I always really wanted it to be a non-academic view. So when organisations working with people in poverty have responded positively to it, that has been a real endorsement for me.

“I think that developments since then have vindicated that kind of approach and made it worthwhile doing a second edition.”