Saturday, 19 January 2013
We need to talk about poverty...
There is no poverty. Really there isn’t - or at least that is what the numbers should tell us. But take a moment to glimpse at reality and you will see poverty. Not just the “relative poverty” that characterises the ‘living wage’ debate but real poverty - people who genuinely don’t know how they’ll afford to put food on the table tomorrow, people who really don’t have anywhere to live.
Two days ago an old cinema in Shipley caught fire – it’s now being demolished as an unsafe building. One tweet I saw suggested that it might have started from a tramp lighting a fire to keep warm on a cold, snowy night. It may turn out that there was some other cause but, sadly, this suggestion could very well be true. For whatever reason there are people sleeping rough on even the coldest night – and this is poverty.
Too many of us look at this and throw up our hands in despair. After all we’ve had a welfare system for over 100 years and a welfare state for nearly 70 – and still there are people who end up unable to heat their home, wondering whether they can feed their children and lacking in any hope or aspiration. So when I see people “defending” the welfare state, I want to scream and point to the terrible injustice of poverty.
Understand that this welfare system of ours does not work if there are food banks. The welfare system does not work if charities have to pay for kids to get breakfast. And does not work if disabled people have to – almost literally – jump through hoops to get the support they need to play a full part in our society.
This is not the welfare system created by the current government – for sure, the Coalition has tinkered a bit round the edges - but the substance of the system is an accumulation from decades of responding to poverty. A tweak here, an adjustment there, a new benefit for some ‘problem’ group – single mums, old people, young people: whoever has the loudest voices shouting their case.
And it doesn’t work. If it worked there wouldn’t be any poverty.
But there is poverty. And something should be done about it.
Not just ameliorating its effects when they manifest themselves but answering the question “why?” Why, when we are richer than we’ve ever been, do so many people seem to miss out? And why is that failure – that poverty – persisting down the generations?
The debate is sterile – on one side we have the advocates of welfarism telling us that we should simply spend more money. That benefits should be higher. That more people should get benefits. And that we should take more money off other people to make this possible. This is a depressing argument – we’re spending over £200 billion on welfare, half of which can be seen as seeking to alleviate poverty. Yet we still have poor people – if that isn’t an indicator of a failed system, I don’t know what is.
Set against this “just spend more” approach is the contention that the poor are undeserving and that, if you just took away the drip-feed of benefits, they’d all go off and get jobs. And there is a grain of truth there – welfare benefits do act as a disincentive to work for some people. But the substance of the argument is not just uncaring but unjust and irresponsible too.
It seems to me that, as Conservatives, we need to stop responding to the welfarists’ cries of pain with a sort of “tough love” – payment cards, bans, controls, mandation: ordering the poor about because we can. Instead we should develop our own narrative of poverty – recognising that it exists, appreciating both its scale but also the extent to which each story represents a little human tragedy.
However, we need first to get across – to repeat until we’re blue in the face – that one person being rich doesn’t make another person poor. Indeed, that man’s success is more likely to get people out from poverty than to push people into that state.
Secondly we need to explain – on the give a man a fishing rod principle – that we must give priority to stopping tomorrow’s poverty rather than simply dealing with today’s poverty. This means facing down the education mafia who think it’s OK that the children of poor people get a worse education – or rather claim that the education they’re given isn’t worse despite all the evidence to the contrary. And it means that schools must see it as part of their role to get children into work.
I recall an English teacher from what some would call a “sink school” describing how teaching the bottom set of fifth-formers was soul-destroying until he decided to try and get them jobs rather than push them through an exam most of them would fail. And he did that until the head teacher stopped him – getting the exam results up, rising through the league table was more important than seeing to it that the children leaving at 16 did so with a bit of a start in life.
The third thing we need to say is that too many people get benefits they don’t really need. This isn’t to say that child benefit, for example, isn’t very useful, a real blessing for many families but it is to say that those families wouldn’t be tipped into poverty – unable to feed the kids – if that benefit was lost to them. And the same goes for a lot of the “in-work” benefits, for winter fuel payments and free TV licenses.
And then we need to say that we will focus on poverty – on people who, for whatever reason, really are poor. Not just giving them money but sitting down with them, talking about what they want to do, how they got into the pickle they’re in and how they might find a way out. Right now our approach – and this has been true for years – is dominated by nannying, hectoring and finger-wagging. Rather than understand the problem we tell them off for drinking, for smoking and for getting fat.
This isn’t to say that these lifestyles are good but to suggest that condemning them without offering a route out is wrong. That single mum in a council flat probably hates her life more than the nannies can know – she doesn’t want to be overweight, she knows she drinks too much and the smoking has given her a cough. But just telling her off for these bad decisions doesn’t help – in probably makes it worse. And her life is still crap.
I don’t know the solutions – for some it may be too late. But I do know that the debate we’re having – whether it’s endless burble about “the cuts” or the language of “strivers” and “scroungers” – misses the point entirely. There are lots of people out there – some working for bits of the government, some for private businesses and many for charities – who are doing creative, thoughtful and productive things to help alleviate poverty. Perhaps we should work a little more with these people – find out what they’re doing, spread the good word and the great work.
Our current system has failed. You don’t need to go to Easterhouse to find this out – just take a look around your town. But the poverty that failure allows will not be resolved by throwing more cash in to the welfare system – not least because we can’t afford to do that. We need to refocus welfare so most of it goes to the genuinely needy rather than to people for whom it nice but not essential. And we need to give the children of those poor people the tools for them not to be poor when they grow up.