Friday, 22 August 2014

It's poverty not inequality that should concern us...


Although Fraser Nelson falls foul of some factual errors (when will people stop using mortality statistics to say things like "a boy born in Liverpool is expected to live five years less than one born in Westminster" when it simply isn't true), he does get to the heart of a big challenge - poverty:

As our politicians enjoy summer drinks on Parliament’s terrace, they can hear Big Ben echoing from buildings in a part of the city that badly needs their help. But they will have known this for years, and grown inured to it. Our poverty is hiding in plain sight. 

And can we be clear about something else here - the issue isn't 'inequality' either it is simply and straightforwardly poverty. What we have allowed to happen, first with that pseudo-academic tract, "The Spirit Level" and now with the more substantive and rigorous work from Thomas Piketty is to replace concern about absolute conditions with concern about relative conditions - inequality is more important to policy-makers than poverty. More importantly, one specific and tightly-defined pair of inequalities are more important - income inequality and wealth inequality.

So other inequalities - of provision, of opportunity and of attention - are pushed aside by a torrent of largely purposeless debate about this king pair of inequalities. And the result of this is that the problem becomes systemic rather than personal, a concern of think tanks and sternly proclaimed generalisations rather than a question of what we do for the single mum trapped in a sink estate, the semi-orphan lad roaming the street half the night and the 50 plus bloke who finds no-one wants the skills he spent three decades perfecting. Instead, 'inequality' will be solved by an international wealth tax, more income redistribution, clamping down on big businesses dodging taxes and generally squeezing the rich until blood drips from their pips.

The assumption in all this debate - the premise of "The Spirit Level" - is that if we fix inequality of income and/or wealth (it's not always clear) then, as if by magic, that poverty will disappear. Well I've a message for the inequality campaigners - it really ain't that simple. And instead of fussing about Gini Coefficients and such guffle, we should fuss about developing proposals that really do help get people out of poverty. In the short term we can (and do) redirect money and other resource so, in the main, people do not go without. The problem is that, as the foodbank story shows, this system of redistribution doesn't work very well.

The solution is not to have the poverty in the first place and to do this we must recognise that some people get into such a tangle - "chaotic lifestyles" as the  jargon would have it - that they lose the capacity and ability to escape. And into such tangles of poverty, addiction, crime and ill-health are drawn whole families. Bradford's 'Families First' programme (part of the wider government-supported 'troubled families' programme) has successfully supported over 1000 families getting important changes and a little bit of order - kids attending school regularly, the right medical support and intervention to address addictions. People's lives aren't transformed and this isn't a fairy tale where Eric the Good Witch waves his wand and everything is fine. But from a situation where the only expectation would be grinding poverty, ill-health, the courts and the mortuary slab, we now have for some of the most troubled people some degree of hope.

None of this is about inequality. Making the wealthy less wealthy won't sort out the problems of these families. We should be talking about poverty - whatever Fraser Nelson may say, the fact of living in Southwark doesn't make you live less long than living in Westminster. What make people live less long and the reasons they end up in places with the worst housing and the highest crime is because they are poor.

Fraser Nelson is right when he points to the impact of better schools - the entire purpose of Michael Gove's campaigning leadership - on poor communities. We can be cheered by the incredible performance of places like King Solomon Academy in central London but what we can't afford is to let go the mission to see every school aspire to those standards. It is the best hope for those people living in poverty.

But in the meantime we have to do more about that poverty. Not by taking money from one set of people to spread around another set. Not by making out that the problem is greater than it is so as to make a cheap political point about inequality. Rather it's about actions that reduce poverty. And about stopping those things that make poverty worse - levies that increase the price of fuel, tariffs that make food more expensive, business rates that drive retail out from poor communities and public health policies that demonise the poor's choices.

But first for Conservatives it is time to start talking about poverty. And to start that conversation by saying that it is poverty that should concern us not inequality.


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