Book reviews, Poverty

The best book on poverty I have ever read

This book was given to me by a former colleague 3 years ago, but I must confess that I only read it in the last few weeks.

Being honest, the delay was caused by a misjudged assumption that it would be a grim rant about structural inequality: long on problems and blame, short on hope and solutions.

But my assumptions were very wrong. In fact, Poverty Safari is by far the best book on poverty that I have ever read.

Systemic poverty

Darren McGarvey grew up in Pollok, a large housing estate in south Glasgow. He writes with intensity about the challenges of his up-bringing: inequality, material poverty and how views of residents were routinely ignored. 

But he is also bracingly honest about the dysfunctional behaviour of his Mum, whose addictions, poor mental health and violence created chaos in his family’s life.

These experiences led McGarvey into homelessness, addiction and mental health crises himself. And they also took him into his work as a writer, rapper and social commentator.

Fusion

It is the fusion of the structural and the personal that makes this a powerful, truthful and prophetic book. McGarvey’s analysis crosses the tribal boundaries of contemporary political debate. Like George Orwell, his politics is very much left-wing, but he is pointedly critical of the contemporary left’s blind-spots.

McGarvey uses personal story, embedded in a local context, to show why the pursuit of social justice should always mean combining systemic change and personal responsibility.

Externalised problems

McGarvey argues that an overly structural approach both ignores the reality of life and disempowers poor communities:

‘Responsibility for poverty and its attendant challenges is almost always externalised; ascribed to an unseen force or structure, a system or some vaguely defined elite…we peddle the idea that everything will be fine just as soon as the current system breaks down…’

He highlights the taboo in left-wing circles around personal responsibility:

‘We deny the objective truth that many people will only recover from their mental health problems, physical illnesses and addictions when they, along with correct support, accept a certain level of culpability for the choices they make. Yet such an assertion has become offensive to our ears despite being undeniably true.’

Identity politics

McGarvey’s analysis of the ‘well-meaning left-leaning, liberal middle class’ who run the poverty industry particularly struck me. Too often the concerns of poorer people are patronised and dismissed as ‘ignorant self-harm’ when they vote for right-wing parties, rather than grasp what their real concerns are.

He takes issue with the simplistic tribalism and identity politics which toxifies political debate:

‘Identity politics has become synonymous with a style of activism that many people across the political spectrum find illiberal, censorious and counter-productive…every analysis starts with a privilege check, pre-emptively invalidating the opinions of people who disagree. Pathological over-simplification is not only encouraged but mandatory.’

Personal honesty

The book’s deepest strength is its personal honesty. In a powerfully self-critical chapter on his experience of the warping effect of drugs, McGarvey writes:

‘This is the nightmare of addiction. And right at the core of it all was no longer pain or emotional trauma, as I often told myself, but a deep and malignant selfishness and a lack of concern for the needs of others. An inability to see beyond my own pain and my own narrow worldview.’

And what is fascinating is that his own recovery included a re-assessment of the political orthodoxy he had grown up accepting:

‘All my life I had been told that the system was to blame for the problems in my family’s life…all I can say is that my own life began to improve when I stopped blaming other people.’

And these are tendencies he identifies more broadly across leftist activism:

‘When I look at the left, I see a worrying lack of self-awareness and a pathological belief in the legitimacy of our own resentment which are beginning to undermine the broader objective of social justice.’

The new frontier

This book is raw, angry and critical. But it is also hopeful, inspiring and most of all, truthful.

McGarvey does not reference faith or spirituality but the blend of social and personal transformation he articulates resonates hugely with the best of socially-concerned Christianity. This vision of a ‘new frontier’ of activism from the final chapter is a great example:

‘Many of the conditions of my life began to change when I got less offended by the truth: some of my problems were mine to solve. The new frontier for individuals and movements who want to radically change society is to first recognise the need for radical change within ourselves.’

Buy Poverty Safari: understanding the anger of Britain’s underclass

5 thoughts on “The best book on poverty I have ever read”

  1. Wow, powerful stuff Jon. I so often find a “both/and” approach is really helpful when looking at so many issues, and I believe this reflects so much biblical wisdom eg. the “now but not yet” nature of the Kingdom, the word and the spirit, intimacy and involvement, grace and truth etc. It sounds like this is well worth a read… if I can get round to it!

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  2. Jon – do you think this translates well into American comparables? Seems like the underlying issues would fairly universally resonate…

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    1. Hi DB, I can’t answer really as I have only ever spent 5 days in America, but I would think aspects of it would translate well. Essentially its powerful because it combines a structural analysis along with a strong emphasis on personal responsibility. For me, this is the blend that the Bible speaks of and a theme which someone like MLK continually focussed on. I believe this synthesis can bring together the ‘progressives’ and ‘conservatives’. What I see in the US (for example on gun crime) is a polarisation between the two which simply maintains the status quo. I would definitely recommend the book and would be interested in what people in the US think of its relevance in your context.

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