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We Won’t Eradicate Poverty Until We Understand It

The headline figures speak for themselves. New research out today from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) shows that since 2011/12, there are 380,000 more children and 300,000 more pensioners living in poverty. Across the UK, more than one fifth of the entire UK population is living below the poverty line - 8m of whom live in working households.

These findings, whilst shocking, are not particularly surprising. Current trends are heading in the wrong direction. The IFS have also predicted child poverty will soon reach record levels. The JRF’s four proposed solutions – ensure support keeps up with costs, make work pay, reduce housing costs and improve prospects – highlight, and this cannot be emphasised enough, that poverty is structural.

Yet many current policy decisions fly in the face of these solutions. Take, for example, the freezing of benefits, recently confirmed for another twelve months from April 2018. If benefits do not keep pace with the rising cost of living, recipients are obviously worse off. The recent Autumn Budget pertained to ‘deliver for Britain’s workers’, but policies such as raising the income tax threshold by definition help those on higher incomes and offer next to nothing for those more reliant on state support.

The same argument can be made for recent announcements on housing. Much was made of the eradication of stamp duty for first-time buyers, but according to the OBR this will only inflate house prices and benefit those already on the property ladder. More genuinely affordable housing - available at social rent, not 80% of market income – is needed. Currently, more than a third of working-age adults in receipt of housing benefit have to top it up with other income to meet rent. 

Perhaps, however, the most disheartening aspect of today’s launch was the response by the Chair of the Education Select Committee. Robert Halfon MP emphasised the injustice experienced for those “not even at the foot of the ladder of opportunity” and wanted to see a society in which everybody could rise to the top. Private schools should pay a levy and bring in society’s most disadvantaged children and we should ‘focus on character’ through mechanisms such as a more elaborate National Citizenship Service to help aspiration and ‘troubled families’.

First of all, it is impossible for everybody to rise to the top. Even if you believe in the concept of social mobility, those in lower socio-economic positions cannot move up the ‘ladder of opportunity’ if those already up there are ‘better educated’, have powerful social networks and generally opportunity hoard. You cannot focus on just one end of the so-called ladder of opportunity.

Secondly, a focus on character and troubled families is typical of a conceptualisation of poverty that places blame on the individual. The Troubled Families Programme, launched in the wake of the 2011 riots, is emblematic of this approach to poverty. It has been criticised for not addressing structural issues and merely teaching ‘troubled families’ to ‘learn to be poor’.

Thirdly, forcing private schools to bring in a few disadvantaged children will not reduce poverty. Such a proposal will do nothing to alleviate what Professor Danny Dorling calls educational apartheid, let alone account for the lived experience of working class children in academic environments. Undoing the charitable status of private schools, which will cost the government £522m by 2020, and re-investing in Sure Start would represent more sensible ways to offset inequalities in education and reduce the likelihood of poverty over the lifespan.

Poverty is not mere economic hardship. The JRF report states that 25% of those in the bottom fifth of the income distribution suffer from depression or anxiety. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen recognised the psycho-social harm brought on by poverty more than 30 years ago, and whilst we can be tempted to lose ourselves in these new statistics, these trends represent the 14m people that are struggling to make ends meet.

Moving forward, there is hope to be found in the most recent British Social Attitudes survey which shows the public are keener on greater tax and spend than previous cohorts. Yet tax evaders are still viewed more positively than benefit cheats. We have to promote an understanding that poverty is structural and multidimensional, and not the result of individual error or laziness. Solving poverty will not be achieved in isolation to our other problems. Combatting inequality and low-pay, re-balancing our economy, solving the housing crisis and strong trade unions all have an important role to play. Policy needs to recognise this.