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John Veit-Wilson is Emeritus Professor of Social Policy of Northumbria University and Visiting Professor in Sociology at Newcastle University. He was one of the original ‘poverty researchers’ employed in the foundation year of the university (1964). He has sustained a life-long interest in concepts, theories and measures of poverty, their uses and their histories, extending it to issues of human rights to incomes adequate for social inclusion. He writes:
In September 1964 I was appointed a research officer in the just-opening Essex sociology department, working on the national survey of poverty under Peter Townsend at Essex and Brian Abel-Smith at LSE. It was a joint project, even if Peter’s name is inseparably associated with it; Brian later dropped out of the joint project when it became incompatible with his other activities. I’d been working in London in various jobs, management training and business services for five years, after a postgraduate degree in Stockholm, and so until we found a house in Colchester and sold ours in London I worked in one of LSE’s offshoot buildings (Skepper House near UCL). I also had the use of an office in one of the wooden prefab huts behind Wivenhoe House. We moved to Colchester in early summer 1965, by which time sociology had moved into the new concrete buildings, and I shared an office with Joan Busfield, who had just arrived…
I focused on the research project and didn’t have any teaching responsibilities. During the months I was still in London and working at LSE, I worked with Hilary Land on the intensive qualitative pilot study of large families, which she continued. When I got to Essex I worked on the study of long-term sick and disabled men and their families as my sole project. Dennis Marsden was studying single mothers and Adrian Sinfield had already written on his study of unemployed men and their families. The aim was for the first time to generate fruitful ideas about what people who were themselves experiencing situations in which poverty is a risk when other compensating resources are deficient, saw as the necessities and the deprivations of ordinary lives. From these ideas the team then developed new approaches to poverty, both conceptually in terms of the public rather than the expert perspective on what it meant, and also methodologically. It was the findings of these studies that suggested the key indicators of what deprivation was in the UK at that time as perceived by the public. In the light of subsequent argument about ‘who dreamt them up’ it’s important to re-emphasise their foundations in empirical research.
My contract as a research officer was specified as three years from the outset, so it was naturally expected to terminate in August 1967. By then the pilot projects had been completed and the team was drawing conclusions from them and planning the next, national, stage of the research. At that point the Rowntree funding did not cover as many staff and so my contract was not extended. Hilary (at LSE) and Dennis continued, and Adrian was already lecturing anyway. With a wife and three young children to support I had to take the first permanent teaching job I was offered, which turned out to be at what later became Newcastle Polytechnic. I worked there for 25 years and was head of the sociology group (about 16 people) from 1974 to 1987. I’ve been at Newcastle University in various honorary or research positions since taking early retirement from the Poly (now called Northumbria University) in 1992.
As my first degree was in economics and social anthropology and with a masters’ degree (equivalent) in Swedish social policy, there was a tremendous amount of sociology for me to learn, and immersion in the busy intellectual life of the Essex sociology department certainly affected my life and career greatly thereafter. Peter sent me on the first BSA summer school for postgraduate students and new researchers, at Exeter University in the summer of 1965, which also taught me a lot. Colin Bell was a fellow student. He was a graduate student at Swansea at the time, I believe, but with some connection to the Banbury project I seem to recall. Essex was a small and very friendly and welcoming department while I was there, and I and my family had a lot of help in settling in from people like Ernest and Fiona Rudd. Ioan Davies’s partner found us an au pair (Eva Riekert with whom we are still in friendly contact) in an emergency when our third child was about to be born.
There’s one correction I should make, though, and that’s to the entry about Dennis Marsden, a lifelong friend from those times. He wasn’t appointed a year after the university opened but only four months later. He and I used to joke about the fact that I’d been appointed from 1 September 1964 and was therefore eligible for the additional allowance for staff children then paid by all universities. That allowance was abolished from the end of 1964; so when Dennis took up his post on New Year’s Day 1965 he did not get it for his children. All three research officers on the poverty team (Hilary, Dennis, me) were offered their appointments during 1964 and Dennis was the last to be able to take up the post. Michael Meacher was also a researcher in the department at this time, and was just developing his political interests — he fought the 1966 election in Colchester as an apprentice no-hope Labour candidate before being selected for Oldham. He’d already gone to York by the time I left Colchester in September 1967.
The work of the poverty research team and what I learnt at Essex made an enormous contribution to my entire subsequent career in poverty theory and method, as can be seen on my personal website (www.staff.ncl.ac.uk/j.veit-wilson/). It includes a rehabilitation of the pre-Townsendian theoretical work of the poverty research pioneer Seebohm Rowntree. That was followed by three archive studies: the Beveridge Committee’s covert assumptions about benefit levels (they recommended less-eligibility not adequacy); the only government in-house study of National Assistance (in)adequacy ever carried out (kept secret and firmly denied as even feasible ever since); and the absence of any conceptual justification for the level of the personal tax allowance. My cross-national work in the early 1990s led to the development of the concept of Governmental Minimum Income Standards. It was not surprisingly rejected by government but a version of it is now widely accepted as an empirically justified basis for setting the living wage. And at a practical policy level, I accompanied Brian Abel-Smith who was speaking about the findings of Peter’s and his research (published as The Poor and the Poorest, 1965) to the meeting called by Quakers concerned about poverty at Toynbee Hall in March 1965. The participants decided to take action and set up what became the Child Poverty Action Group. I wrote its first policy paper and have been actively involved with it for most of the subsequent half-century, most recently as a trustee and vice-chair. And it could be said I owe all that to my Essex experiences in 1964-67.
John’s achievements and activities in recent years have included election as an Academician of the Academy of Social Sciences and Honorary Fellow of the Joint University Council. He has held visiting professorships at the universities of Bremen and ELTE, Budapest, and numerous visiting scholar positions in other countries, including a Research Fellowship at the Hanse Institute for Advanced Studies, Delmenhorst, Germany 2008-09. He is consultant both to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation research programme on ‘Money Matters’ as well as member of advisory groups on Minimum Income Standards and other projects, and to the Technical University of Lisbon’s research programme on Minimum Income Standards for Portugal. Journals in Greece and Korea have included him as an adviser, and his work has been translated into German, Greek, Polish and Russian. He has translated two social policy books from German, on poverty concepts and research and on European Foundations of the Welfare State, as well as from Swedish, the Social Democratic Party’s statement of Principles and Values.
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