David Mytton

Book Review (5/5) – Poverty Safari: Understanding the Anger of Britain’s Underclass (Darren McGarvey)

Published (updated: ) in Book Reviews. Tags: .

Originally published on Goodreads.

There are 2 parts to Poverty Safari. The first is a series of auto-biographical stories which provide the sad backstory for Darren McGarvey’s upbringing and experiences growing up and living in poverty in Glasgow. 

It is a brave thing to do to recount such personal tales. Whilst it certainly helps to share these experiences so others can try and understand how many people live, I feel their real purpose is to provide legitimacy and authenticity to what I feel is the main, and second part of the book: McGarvey’s commentary and analysis of the current state of poverty politics.

This is important because McGarvey’s assessment is no doubt controversial and without understanding his background then it would be right to ask how he is qualified to judge the current state of political discussions. Of course, the stories themselves are important to help the reader understand what life is like struggling with poverty but I get the feeling that society is becoming somewhat immune and numb to such otherwise emotive events. The specific, harrowing details might surprise the reader, but the fact that this happens in general probably does not. As such, the dual purpose is crucial: factual information as well as providing credibility for the author to attack the current political landscape.

It is refreshing to read an assessment of the current state of things that to me sounds entirely accurate. Not only does it criticize the entire strategic approach to dealing with poverty:

There is a big disconnect between the grand social engineering agenda of government and the far simpler, unglamorous aspirations and needs of local people, many of whom are not fluent in the ways of jargon.

but it also provides a compelling critique of how the problem is even discussed. Not only does McGarvey examine his own beliefs, but he asks questions of everyone involved:

I always just thought the aim was to dismantle poverty. However, once you see the mechanics of the poverty industry up close, you realise it’s in a state of permanent growth and that without individuals, families and communities in crisis there would no longer be a role for these massive institutions.

It is also good to see acknowledgement of the difficulties in “solving” the problem. We are stuck in a blame narrative which is designed to score political points which only serves to distract from solving the real problems:

Blame for poverty is always ascribed to someone else; an outgroup that we are told not only enables poverty and benefits from it, but also gets a kick out of people being poor.

For anyone who is interested in learning about what it is truly like to experience poverty but is frustrated by how things seem to be progressing (or not), you will find this relatively short book an enlightening read regardless of your political views. And especially if you have political views (left or right), it cuts through the challenges of having a real discussion in our current age of outrage.