The politics of poverty

February 26, 2009 at 10:09 pm | Posted in British Politics, Working Class Britain | Leave a comment

Over at CentreRight, Jill Kirby eviscerates the ‘shamelessly cheerful’ Harriet Harman for attending the launch of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s report into poverty, inequality & government policy. She interprets the report like so:

Put briefly: as Labour poured money into welfare spending during its first term, the resultant redistribution shrank (modestly) the numbers of pensioners and children in relative poverty; by 2004 child and pensioner poverty started rising again, and wages were stalling. And as we already know, a plethora of expensive intitiatives made no impact whatosever on the NEETS (16-18 year olds not in education, employment or training) – despite a buoyant economy with no lack of of jobs.

As we stare into the pit of a plunging labour market, there is not much for the Government to be proud of. While she wages war on Mandy, staking out her place as the true champion of equality, Hattie would do well to apologise – on behalf of all her colleagues and especially her erstwhile friend and mentor Gordon Brown – for the wasted years, the wasted billions and the wasted opportunities. Opportunites to create a pro-work, pro-family welfare system with reduced dependency and genuine (not grade-inflated) educational opportunities for all. It’s no good telling us you cared, or asking us to let you try more of the same. You had your chance (and our money) and you blew it. You might at least say sorry.

There’s a little too much tubthumping here for this to be a fair analysis. It’s certainly true that when you consider the expenditure over the last decade, the government’s successes seem meagre and their failures seem egregious, and the fact that progress seems to have stopped dead after 2004 should be a real cause for concern. And yes, this being central government, I’m sure money has been wasted, and that there were schemes which never worked or which should’ve been ditched when they reached their sell-by date.

But what renders this criticism slightly mute is that we don’t actually know how much it costs to lift a person out of poverty, short of introducing a fairly generous citizen’s allowance. One of the key conclusions in the JRF’s report is that the ‘trickle down’ approach of the 1980’s and ’90’s didn’t work, and whilst three Labour governments have had some qualified successes in reducing poverty, the immediate effect of its ‘pump up’ approach has merely been to enrich the ‘low-hanging fruit’ who were able to find work during a decade of economic growth, and who had their income supplemented by tax credits. Even during our days of plenty, we still had long-term unemployment, and as a result we had entrenched, immovable poverty.

For Kirby, this probably points to dependence on an overly-generous, overly-lenient welfare state. For me, it shows that the welfare state isn’t really the problem. Those who were unemployed during the boom years aren’t suddenly going to find employment in our days of scarcity, no matter how many sanctions you throw at them; many simply don’t possess the skills required by employers, and they are competing with experienced & driven immigrant workers on one hand, and a next generation of younger, more skilled and experienced workers on the other. One of the consequences of the 80’s and 90’s was that it created a lost generation of would-be workers, and the least we can do is keep a roof over their heads.

To prevent there from being further lost generations, we must look at the results of our education system, and in this area it still isn’t possible to determine whether the government’s been a success or failure. Kids who entered school in 1997 are only just beginning to revise for their GCSEs, and government reforms to schools didn’t even begin until after 2000. As the report notes, it won’t be possible to know what effect Labour’s education reforms have had on the poverty rate for another 5-10 years, by which point it’ll probably be a Tory government claiming credit/taking the blame for the results.

To conclude: no, the JRF’s report doesn’t make the government’s record on poverty & inequality look great, but nor does it lend itself to the same old Tory assumptions about the evils of the welfare state. We really need to get past that.

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