How should we talk about poverty in the 2020s?

Ruth Lister's book challenges the UK’s approach to poverty, and highlights the work of several of Church Action on Poverty’s partners.

Baroness Ruth Lister is a member of the House of Lords, the honorary elected president of Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), and a Professor of Social Policy at Loughborough University. Poverty links to academic research and anti-poverty campaigners’ views on the concept of poverty. The second edition uses updated research and puts a renewed emphasis on the importance of participatory research, involving ‘experts by experience’. Poverty attempts to widen public understanding of poverty and therefore will not be new to campaigners. Lister’s arguments link heavily with Church Action on Poverty’s strategy of Dignity, Agency, and Power.

In the 2020s, poverty is more salient an issue than ever. The COVID-19 pandemic looms large throughout Poverty. Lister argues that focused definitions of poverty affect political policies but asserts that poverty shouldn’t be “reduced to statistics”. She emphasises that poverty should not only be seen as insecurity but as a “corrosive social relation” that permeates the experiences of those experiencing it. Lister analyses the non-material aspects of poverty and argues passionately for:

  • The need to treat those living-in poverty with dignity and respect
  • The recognition of agency within the experience of poverty
  • The importance of reframing the dominant narrative of poverty in terms of power and citizenship.

Ultimately, Poverty calls for the recognition and respect of the viewpoints of those impacted by poverty and a rethink of the politics of poverty in order to redistribute resources more fairly.

Church Action on Poverty’s work is centred upon the ideas of dignity, agency and power, and the book reinforces the importance of all of these.


Lister hypothesises that how poverty is seen and experienced is created by a power dynamic within a society where the majority ‘non-poor’ decides the attitudes towards ‘the poor’. ‘The poor’ are created as ‘the other’ through language and images that “label and stigmatise marginalised social groups, with fundamental implications.” The main one being that they are treated differently to the rest of society. The best example of this is the 2014 Channel 4 show Benefits Street, which was criticised for reinforcing negative stigmas of claiming benefits.

The stigma of poverty causes social shame and leads those in poverty to feel disrespected. Participatory research in the UK and internationally has concluded that those in poverty are fighting to maintain dignity and respect as the experience of poverty takes it from them.

Lister asserts that treating people experiencing poverty with dignity can “increase their self-confidence and sense of agency” arguing for the recognition and representation of those in poverty within wider society and the media. Lister argues later for the importance of participation of those with lived experience in making policy decisions to shift the narrative and allow dignity and respect.


One of Lister’s main arguments is the importance of recognising the agency of people experiencing poverty, emphasising that they make their own decisions to cope with their circumstances. She claims that the acknowledgment of the agency of people living-in poverty can be another sign of respect. But she emphasises that an important consequence of poverty is the constraints of agency, either through ‘othering’ or a lack of material resources. Lister categorises four different types of agency, from the everyday to the more strategic:

  1. ‘Getting by’ – the struggle to keep going in the face of adversity and insecurity, which is not acknowledged by wider society. Lister stresses how impactful insecurity can be, as it can impact mental and physical health.

2. ‘Getting (back) at’ – the feeling of being trapped in poverty and powerlessness can create anger that can be directed at the state (through benefit fraud) or families and neighbourhoods (through anti-social behaviour). But challenging the narrative doesn’t have to be negative. For example, ATD 4th World’s poetry written by ‘experts by experience’ contains assertions of dignity in the face of indifference/disrespect.

3. ‘Getting out’ – Individuals use their agency to negotiate their way through the structural routes out of poverty, usually employment or education. Lister argues the key to agency, in this case, is raising the aspirations of those who feel powerless.

4. ‘Getting organised’ – ‘othering’ processes can discourage those in poverty from activism, but Lister argues that action often takes place within communities in the form of mutual aid (which has increased during the pandemic). Lister also uses the example of APLE Collective (Addressing Poverty through Lived Experience) and Poverty2Solutions, who address the perceived lack of political action from people in poverty by creating a platform to speak out against political policies.

Lister argues government policies tackling poverty should address societal structures while also helping individuals use their agency to negotiate the pathways open to them. The emphasis of participation of ‘experts by experience’ in research and activism to challenge the ‘othering’ of people in poverty is key to the book.


Lister emphasises the importance of the use of human rights, citizenship, voice, and power as a counter-narrative to characterising people in poverty as the ‘other’. Anti-poverty campaigners use this discourse to link political narratives on poverty to wider concerns about human rights, citizenship, and democracy. Lister argues this is a potentially transformative way of speaking about and mobilising against poverty.

Our understanding of poverty can be enlarged when we frame it in this way, and it supports a focus on dignity and agency. The idea that poverty is a denial of basic human rights implies a moral imperative to tackle it and shifts responsibility to structural causes. Lister argues it is important to promote the discourse of human rights through the political action of those with lived experience of poverty, to reinstate dignity, agency, and power to rearrange the societal structures in their favour.

Social divisions and different experiences of poverty

It is becoming increasingly acknowledged, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, that the impact of poverty and how it is experienced is affected by social divisions such as age, gender, race, disability, social class, religion, and geography. Lister reasons that poverty cannot be effectively tackled until inequality is reduced both locally and internationally. Throughout Poverty, the effects of the social constraints of poverty and the individual agency of those who experience poverty despite these constraints are emphasised.

Women, black and ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, those living in deprived areas, children, and the elderly are more likely to experience poverty.

Lister maintains that “policies combating poverty need to address underlying intersecting inequalities and be embedded within broader gender, ‘race’ and disability equality and antidiscrimination strategies”. This view that anti-poverty strategies should tackle intersecting inequalities as a whole is not yet widely acknowledged but should be taken seriously. Here at Church Action on Poverty, we learnt valuable lessons through discussions on some of these themes during Challenge Poverty Week 2020.

Sign reading Look After Each Other

Overall, Poverty maintains the empowerment of people in poverty is needed for them to realise their visions of society that don’t include poverty, which would lead to new ways of thinking about poverty. Lister cites ongoing initiatives from ATD Fourth World and Poverty2Solutions. This book aims to widen the general understanding of poverty to galvanise us all to recognise the importance of including people in poverty. That’s something all of us in the anti-poverty movement recognise the importance of, as we work to ensure that dignity, agency and power are better understood in the context of tacking poverty.

Jessica Waylen is Challenge Week Intern at Church Action on Poverty.

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