Focusing on child poverty was always a dead end

Posted on May 27, 2010 in Inclusion Debates

Source: — Authors: – CommentisFree – Plenty of people are more deserving than suffering children
Thursday 27 May 2010.   Deborah Orr

I never admired or trusted Labour’s obsession with “lifting children out of poverty,” because it always appeared to me to be an intellectual and a practical cop out. I understand such an assertion sounds monstrous, because the cause of ending child poverty is so widely supported – and I am in no way opposed to ending child poverty. It’s just that I think you do that by ending adult poverty. I believe focusing on the child as the passive recipient of state intervention was a well-meaning sleight of hand, and a mistake.

Intellectually, the focus on children was sentimental and dishonest; a way of signalling very strongly that Labour concerned itself, exclusively and scrupulously, with helping only “the deserving poor”. Who, after all, could be more deserving than suffering children, who are in no way responsible for the economic circumstances in which they find themselves?

Plenty of people, actually – people who were once poor children themselves, but who, in the rush to focus on helping the plainly innocent, were assumed to be guilty of fecklessness or worse. Guilt was even apportioned in a literal sense, as the numbers of mentally ill, addicted and ill-educated prisoners mounted.

Practically, the focus on children looks as if it is reaching a dead end. I think it always was one. Children in this country, thank goodness, are generally not expected to generate household income, nor balance the domestic books. Crucially, they have no immediate way of changing their economic circumstances – but if their parents are unable to lift them out of poverty, then the children will be damaged. From there, it is easy to argue that the state must therefore step in. Which it did, in large measure.

Yet, if the events of the last couple of years have taught people anything, it is that it’s hard to hang on anyone the responsibility for the economic circumstances we find ourselves in. Politicians? Bankers? Economists? Free markets ideologues? There is as yet no consensus on blame, and no one is putting their hand up – far from it.

But there is consensus on punishment. The whole school will have to stay behind and receive collective pain. The state must shrink, and so those most dependent on the state are the most cruelly exposed. Who are the people most dependent on the state? Children in poverty, unfortunately.

Consensus on the shrinking of the state is not, of course, complete. There are plenty of deniers, people who argue the deficit should not yet be cut. Their argument is that cuts may damage “the recovery”, as if the alternatives, of either raising taxes or continuing to borrow at an astounding rate, would not damage “the recovery”.

Really, however, such arguments exist in a never-never land, where all this worldwide turmoil is just going to go away, and where, somehow, “the recovery” will allow life, and public services, to go on as they did before the crash. In reality, the government was already borrowing far more than it was gathering in tax receipts before the crash happened, and reliance on cheap loans is a major reason why the markets command our economy now.

The silliest thing is that those who most hated the British economy’s reliance on financial services to “create wealth”, and who most hated the orthodoxies of free-market globalisation, are the very ones who appear to believe that the febrile and unsustainable boom it provided – in public service largesse as well as private wealth – will return, or that its decline can be resisted. Unfortunately, there is only one way to lessen the influence of the markets on government policy, and that is to reduce government reliance on the markets.

It is all too easy, though, to see why people so stridently resist the idea of cutting public services, however illogical their position may be. New research from the estimable Rowntree Foundation suggests child poverty could rise again, to 3.1 million children, by 2020. Who wishes to collude in such a devastating social failure, such a devastating bonfire of human potential? Many critics will argue that the Conservatives do, with the help of their Liberal Democrat friends.

And the truth is, some Conservative rhetoric is indeed simplistic enough to be dangerous, particularly the mantra that “in some parts of the country, the public sector has got too big”. The statement, in itself, is not untrue. But its daft implication is that the public sector in these places has squeezed out the private sector. The reality is that the public sector grew because the private (or privatised) sector had already failed. Public services got so big under Labour because private enterprise was not providing the right jobs, in the right places, at the right price. Labour tried to alleviate symptoms – such as child poverty – instead of finding a cure: a sustainable economy. The way to shrink the public sector is to expand the private sector, not the other way round.

Now, the frightening question is this: if such a transformation could not be achieved during a boom (I’d argue it could have been, at least in part, but that’s spilt milk), then how can it be achieved during a bust?

I’m afraid the only responsible option is to accept that while “the big society” did not go down well on the election campaign doorstep, some version of the concept is the only game in town. However, it cannot be emphasised too strongly that the errors of the last 13 years should not be forgotten. The important thing is not to move people from dependence on the state to dependence on those members of the community who have the biggest shoulders. The important thing is to concentrate really hard on backing people and ideas that can generate appropriate earned income for the people who need it most.

This country is not poor, and a fairer tax system that does not mollycoddle the wealthy has to play a part in achieving enough redistribution of wealth to provide social stability. But the wealthy need carrots as well as sticks, like all of us.

All the major political parties have expressed interest in backing mutuals and cooperatives. All say they want to support small businesses. In the Liberal Democrat manifesto, there was even a proposal to re-establish regional stock exchanges. Some social-market mechanism whereby the better off can invest small or large sums in people who seem like good bets in their own communities, or in the communities they left behind to seek their fortunes (modest or otherwise), is surely an exciting and dynamic prospect.

Shrinking the state will not, in itself, inflate the private sector. That’s a myth. But socially responsible inflation of the private sector must be nurtured, right now, or the inevitable cuts in public services will leave millions abandoned.

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