The Necessity of Evidence: A review of John Bird’s “The Necessity of Poverty”

‘The Big Issue’ is a social enterprise operating all over the world and its founder John Bird should be saluted for whoever he has helped. However, Tal Tyagi explores how the solutions to global poverty that he proposes in ‘The Necessity of Poverty’ fly in the face of empirical evidence. His suggestions are flippant, insensitive and insulting. Instead of innovation or originality, he feeds the reader vacuous slogans: “If you want to end poverty, get out of it.” This is perfect advice for the 21 children who die each minute, mainly from preventable causes!

Bird chirps on about his life. Okay, Lady Luck did not deal him the fairest of hands. Born into poverty, excluded from school, homeless, imprisoned… It can’t have been easy. However, it’s all meaningless at the end of the day. My own experience is too. Anecdote is the pornography of the intellect usually advanced in the absence of concrete argument.

Bertrand Russell explained this in ‘The Problem of Induction.’ A chicken would draw the conclusion (based on her life experience) that the farmer exists to feed her. Similarly, an uncontacted tribal in the Amazon would draw the conclusion that all human beings speak the same language and follow the same customs as they do. The reliance on one’s own limited experience for drawing conclusions paves the way to psychopathy and narcissism. To actually believe that the world should be reorganized according to one’s limited pool of interactions could equally be applied to these situations:

*’I got mugged by a black person… therefore blacks are genetically more predisposed to crime.’

*’I met a Jewish banker… therefore Jews run the banks.’

This poverty of intellect will not solve global poverty. Bird makes a self-described “profound” observation that the reason the world has failed to tackle global poverty is because: “there has been no sizable move to get those in poverty to be the leaders in the fight against poverty.” This is like saying that in order to find a cure for cancer we need more cancer patients to lead the research efforts. In his world, we should take debates away from experts and turn them into whining contests about who has had it hardest. Taking an individual story, such as how his mother had six children and consequently no time for herself, he extrapolates… “The more children you have, the more likely you are to stay impoverished.”  His position is nothing new. It was espoused by Thomas Malthus in the late eighteenth century. The argument goes that poverty is caused by overpopulation and thus the poor should abstain from reproduction.

Such theories belong in the dustbin of history. There are so many reasons to reject Malthusianism – 7 billion reasons in fact. Over the last hundred years we have experienced an exponential population growth, alongside an increase in living standards.

Ozz13x / Creative Commons License

Ozz13x / Creative Commons License


His solution for the working-class to get out of poverty is to behave more like the middle-class who suppsedly ‘burnt the candle at both ends, studied, worked, and got themselves out of poverty’ as well as having smaller families. This ignores how those who work the hardest are often the poorest in society. While education has been pushed as the route out of poverty, a huge proportion of graduates take jobs that don’t even require a degree!

By promoting a low birth rate, Bird is encouraing an ageing population. The devastating consequences of this can be seen in Russia. From the mid-80s right the way through until the 2000s the birth rate has declined rapidly. If Bird was correct, GDP would have increased. But no! It has declined by over 40%!

In the absence of any evidence, Bird continues: “If you don’t like the gap between rich and poor, don’t buy from the 1%.” In a globalized world where corporations often have more power than countries, he is right to put the ‘1%’ under scrutiny. Nevertheless, curtailing this concentration of wealth and power merely by shopping somewhere else is utopian. Whether we are talking GDP or HDI, no country on the face of the planet has come out of poverty simply because people chose to shop differently!

The equation of shopping to voting is also ridiculous. In a democracy, there is a strict one person one vote rule. You don’t have to be Einstein to see that some people have more “votes” in the market than others…

Our capacity to ‘spread the money around’ and reward good business is further thwarted by the growth of conglomerates. A stroll down the high street would suggest there is real free market competition. The reality is quite different. As this diagram clearly shows, most of the brands with which we are familiar are merely the subsidiaries of around ten multinationals. . In boycotting KFC and instead eating out at Pizza Hut, we would be unwittingly lining the pockets of the same people.

Fundamentally, what John Bird lacks is a bird’s eye view. If anything can be salvaged from the book, it’s that in the war on poverty, we should never be blinded by anecdote. Nowhere in his book does he provide a single study, statistic or graph. At best it’s a biography but really it’s more of a sob story – “Listen to meeee! I’ve had it tough!” Who cares? Clement Attlee, founder of our treasured NHS and welfare state was a privately educated son of a solicitor. What matters are results. What matters is evidence.




The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


Have an opinion on this or another topic? Why not write for our blog? Click here to find out more and get in touch.