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(2017-8) How can we understand poverty beyond the developing world?

By Cecilia Anderson, Joel Ansbro, Henrietta Cloake, India Huggett, Zoe LeMaistre, and Isabel Muttreja

‘Tough benefit caps stops scroungers claiming thousands of pounds’ (Maddox, 2017) is just one example of negative news coverage on those most likely to be living in poverty in the U.K. Clickbait headlines such as those, along with shows such as Benefits Street, perpetuate negative stereotypes of the most vulnerable sections of the population.

As poverty escalates in the U.K., we argue that an anthropological understanding of how poverty is represented in the media and policy is paramount. We believe that it is important to interrogate the hegemonic perceptions because of the impact it has on the lived reality of those defined as living in poverty and the resources made available to them. Using an ethnography of a food bank, we emphasise the need to examine the relations which inform poverty, focusing specifically on the historical and political processes. It is an essential conversation if any positive and impactful change is to occur.

The food bank we have chosen to look at is a Trussell Trust food bank in Stockton-on-Tees, North-East England. This food bank was chosen as six of its wards are among the 10% most deprived areas in the country (Garthwaite, Collins and Bambra, 2015). Contrary to the stigma of food bank users exacerbated by the media, the three main reasons for food bank usage in the UK are benefit delays, low incomes, and benefit changes. Many of those interviewed were in work, but it was low wage and they could not afford to feed themselves or, in many cases, their families. This lack of public knowledge of the underlying issues which necessitates the need for foodbanks is not aided by the aforementioned negative media coverage, it only strengthens the negative stigma surrounding food bank users. At the same time, food banks are seen as apolitical spaces of compassionate action. We will show how both perspectives hinder our society’s ability to tackle poverty.

What might an anthropological framework for understanding the lived reality of the food bank look like?

First we need to move beyond definitions of poverty as quantifiable and universal. Maia Green (2006) argues that current methods used by development agencies create an objectified concept of poverty, one which is quantifiable and applicable across the world for comparison. The causes are represented as being analogous across geographical regions, allowing institutions like the World Bank to demand similar structural reforms from countries labelled as ‘having poverty’. It is easy to see why poverty in the UK is dismissed. It does not fit into the quantified definition of poverty.

Instead, poverty needs to be understood as the product of social relations – local, national, and international. Poverty is relative to each society by the relations and structures that form it; it is not an independent object. We must question those that profit off the perpetuation of poverty. From this perspective, we can better understand the agency (or lack thereof) that people have in navigating their economic situation, and the role that institutions and the wealthy have in sustaining their positions of wealth and power.

To study social relations, we have to study the politics and the history that inform those relations. Muehlebach (2011) takes this approach to study volunteering in post-Fordist Italy. Like the presence of food banks, volunteering in Italy is seen as an apolitical act of compassion. However, its popularity is rooted in its industrial history. People were valued for their work in factories and their wage contribution to society. A change in labour opportunities has caused insecurity in how people value themselves and each other. Value can be found in volunteering. Seeing how the value of individuals changes as the economy changes over time can help us understand how those who struggle accessing work in the U.K. come to have negative stigmas attached to them. Tracing these changes makes visible how poverty and the policies to tackle it are deeply political and formed by historical processes.

From these two pieces of work we propose the following anthropological framework for a better understanding of poverty in the UK – that we need to politicise; historicise; and to place the local in a global context.

We can apply this to the food bank in Stockton-On-Tees. To politicise, we need to understand the rise of food banks as a result of UK politics, such as austerity measures. A change in benefit policies means that Universal credit claimants have to wait six weeks to receive money over Christmas, meaning 23,000 low-income households in the UK are at risk of destitution and failing to meet basic living costs, including food (Butler, 2017). In order to historicise, we need to track the historical discourse of poverty in the UK. Garthwaite, Collins and Bambra (2015), citing Hansen et al. (2013), suggest that neoliberalism has simply resurrected the 16th century idea of the ‘unworthy poor’. Finally, to place the local in a global context, we need to consider the changes in wider geopolitical and economic relations, such as how changes in the international labour market have led to insecurity in work in the North-East and informed policies over stagnant wages. Attention to poverty here allows reflection on poverty globally. We should remove the dichotomy of the developed and developing world by diversifying our understanding of poverty.

To conclude, we argue that anthropological perspectives can help us to investigate changing global relations and to understand the nuances of people’s experiences and perspectives. We need to further challenge perceptions of poverty, an issue that goes beyond the developing world. To do this we must start by asking: what are the specific social relations allowing the perpetuation of poverty in the UK and how can we begin to bring these to light?


Butler, P. (2017). New universal credit claimants ‘will get no money before Christmas’, The Guardian, 16 November, [Online]. Available at: (Accessed: 26/11/17).

Garthwaite, K.A., Collins, P.J.,  Bambra, C. (2015). ‘Food for thought: An ethnographic study of negotiating ill health and food insecurity in a UK foodbank’, Social Science and Medicine, 123, pp.38-44.

Green, M. (2006). ‘Representing poverty and attacking representations: Perspectives on poverty from social anthropology’, The Journal of Development Studies, 42(7), pp. 1108-1129.

Maddox, D. (2017). Tough benefits cap stops scroungers claiming thousands of pounds, Express, 3 February, [Online]. Available at: (Accessed: 26/11/17).

Muehlebach, A. (2011). ‘On Affective Labor in Post-Fordist Italy’, Cultural Anthropology, 26(1), pp. 59-82.