Dear ministers: poverty generally means not having enough money

Yesterday’s furore over Nick Clegg’s former interns rather missed the bigger picture.  Yes, it’s not on for MPs (Clegg is, in this respect, pretty typical) to hire de facto labour and not pay for it: equally, Jonny Medland’s tactics aren’t exactly edifying (it’s not as if he suffered from the experience).  The Social Mobility Strategy seems to contain a number of reasonable-in-principle-but-less-than-earth-shattering initiatives, most of which have already been announced and some of which are new.  Fair enough, to a point: all governments try to reframe a whole series of policy announcements from time to time, and goodness knows oppositions like to repackage old policies too.  It’s worth pointing out that much of it rings hollow in the current climate (commitments to Sure Start would be a bit more plausible if Children’s Centres weren’t closing all over the country …), but few of us are going to argue against the general principle.

The Government’s Child Poverty Strategy was also published yesterday.  Of course, it received much less attention: poor children are always of much less interest to the British press than who ends up interning for the Deputy PM.  But a key strand running through it was a commitment to ‘broader’ definitions of poverty.  This ‘broader’ definition seems to stretch through from access to health services to – you guessed it – social mobility and life chances.  Frankly, the Government seems to be in serious danger of confusing the words ‘broader’ and ‘different’: throughout the document, we get references to opportunities, to generational cycles of poverty, to unfair educational outcomes – to anything, in fact, which avoids the question of whether poor families have enough money.

Perhaps I’m narrow-minded, but it seems to me that poverty has rather a lot to do with not having enough money.  It’s all very well to say that poverty isn’t all about money or that poverty plus a pound doesn’t equal fairness (not a statement, I suspect, that anyone who finds themselves one pound above the poverty line would ever make) – but ultimately, if a family struggles to put decent meals on the table, it’s about money.  If an unemployed parent can’t afford the transport to a job interview, it’s about money.  Finding the money for school uniforms is a question of, well, money.  Children whose parents can’t afford enough space for them to study in peace and quiet are struggling with their schoolwork because their parents don’t have enough money.

There’s a cynical conclusion to draw here, which has a large degree of truth to it.  This Government needs to have targets which go broader – and longer-term – than the current set: it knows perfectly well that its chances of the current targets going in anything other than the wrong direction, fast, are vanishingly small.  £18bn of welfare cuts will cut savagely into poor families’ incomes; Housing Benefit cuts will mean that many poor people will find themselves forced to give up jobs as they move out of their reach, one bus ride too many to sustain or one extra half hour too much to juggle with another job; closed Children’s Centres translate into parents who find it that much harder to stay in work.  All in all, income-based targets which can be measured in 2015 are unlikely to hold much comfort for Cameron and Clegg.

But it isn’t just that.  The Government doesn’t really believe that income poverty is the measure of fairness.  It pays lip service to it – it’s obliged to by law, after all – but in its view, as per its Social Mobility Strategy, ‘The true test of fairness is the distribution of opportunities.’  The Child Poverty Strategy trumpets the Fairness Premium for education – and the Child Poverty Commission will now be set up as a Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission (note the order, by the way) – because the Coalition thinks that poverty and mobility can be elided.  It believes that the question of whether people are poor is basically the same as the question of which people are poor in a generation’s time.

Well, it isn’t.  Poverty is poverty: it is a grinding, day-to-day inability to share in the common life.  As Polly Toynbee said of social exclusion, “It is a No Entry sign on every ordinary pleasure”.  And if we subordinate tackling poverty to promoting mobility, not only will we fail to do either: we will condemn another generation of poor children to growing up in poor housing, without birthday presents, with the fear of falling into debt, with parents trying to make ends meet (often with several jobs at once) and often divided from each other under the strain.  It’s very easy to treat the lack of money as a sideshow when you’ve always had plenty of it.  Our Government ought to remember that.

Afterthought: A partial exception to this, in fairness, is a focus on getting people into work.  This is something the last government worked hard on, and found dauntingly difficult, at a time of economic plenty.  At a time when the best part of a million people are about to be put out of work by government policy, I find it hard to believe that the Universal Credit is going to get us very far towards raising employment in the next few years – especially when no one’s even going to start receiving it until 2013.  Smoothing out some of the kinks of the current system is a good thing: but it’s a smoothing out, not a revolution, and it’s accompanied by plenty of benefit horrors – many of which, like the lowering of the maximum award for childcare from 80% to 70% of costs, will actually make it harder for people to enter or to stay in work.

Housing policy poses similar problems: the arguments around the Coalition’s plans to allow higher social rents in order to create revenue streams for building more homes are complex, but higher rents combined with Housing Benefit tapers mean that the barriers to work rise even higher.  (And the need for this particular expedient might have been reduced had the Government not decided to cut the social housing budget in half.)

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