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It’s time for new priorities to tackle want

Article first appeared on the LSE British politics and policy blog on 13 March 2013.

Kate BellThis blog is part of a series connected to the Social State project from the Centre for Labour and Social Studies (Class). The project looks at what Beveridge’s analysis of society can teach us about the Giant Evils of today and uses this to explore how we can chart an alternative course for a welfare state – or Social State – fit for a new settlement in 2015. This blog refers to Kate Bell’s paper – Abolishing Want in a Social State – which addresses the Giant Evil of ‘want’ and proposes new policy priorities for tackling poverty.

Beveridge believed that want – or poverty as we would today understand it – would be one of the easiest of the five giants to slay on the road to reconstruction, compared to the task of eliminating disease, squalor, ignorance and idleness. Seventy years on we’re a long way from achieving that goal. Figures for 2010/11 show that 27 per cent of children, 21 per cent of working age adults, and 14 per cent of pensioners were poor and the number is set to rise in years to come.

This failure can be seen as one of politics as much as policy. Beveridge argued that “freedom from want cannot be forced on a democracy or given to a democracy. It must be won by them”. Looking both at the history of UK policy and internationally it’s clear that countries that set out to reduce poverty, and are prepared to increase spending in order to do so, find that poverty does indeed reduce. Child and pensioner poverty both fell by over a million in the last decade in the UK and in general, countries with more generous welfare states have lower poverty levels. In the words of UNICEF, you get the (child) poverty level you pay for.

This doesn’t mean however that the only strategy to tackle poverty is one of redistribution. The need to commit additional resources to tackling poverty, and the ability to do so, depends to a large extent on levels of employment across a population. The increases in poverty in the UK 1980s were driven not only by reductions in the level of social security but in a polarisation between ‘work rich’ and ‘work poor’ families, and levels of maternal employment play an important role in explaining differences in child poverty rates across countries.

It’s easy to be pessimistic about the British public’s willingness to win an end to poverty at the moment. Repeated attitude surveys show scepticism about additional spending on social security and declining support for redistribution. But it’s possible to argue that this results in part from a debate about poverty and benefit claimants that has become increasingly toxic, serving to separate off the poor from the rest. Attempts to neutralise this debate by getting tough on welfare have largely proved counterproductive. What might an alternative strategy look like?

One positive message from this report is that the policy and communications implications of research on poverty in the UK point largely in the same direction. We know that in policy terms, the largest groups of people living in poverty are people in work and couples with children. Tackling poverty for these groups means universal policies that reduce the costs of children (including additional childcare and child benefit), and policies that seek to tackle in-work poverty by both increasing employment and potentially by reducing housing costs. We also know that in terms of communicating the need for these policies we need to not separate out ‘the poor’ from the rest, but to show that these are interventions that help the majority rather than a marginalised group. Universal and employment based solutions therefore meet both these criteria.

Two challenges face this agenda in the context of economic austerity. Firstly, universal policies have greater immediate costs than targeted additional spending. But international evidence suggests that in the long term they are more effective at tackling poverty. We don’t have to believe that we can move instantly to a comprehensive universal welfare state to think that this should still be the direction of travel. Secondly, by far the biggest driver of poverty levels in the next several years is likely to be the widespread cuts imposed to social security. Should antipoverty campaigners simply focus on campaigning against these cuts? Again, this seems like a poor long-term strategy. Although the need to demonstrate the impact of these cuts on people’s lives is vital, this task needs to be kept separate from that of forging a positive agenda for improving the incomes and lives of the significant numbers of people still hit by poverty in the UK. Neither of these are easy choices, but the evidence suggests that if we want to ensure that we get the policies we need to finally get rid of want, they may be necessary.

Poverty takes away people’s autonomy, subjects them to shame, and damages their futures. But the key message of this report is that it can be tackled – provided the political commitment is there. Winning that commitment is now an essential task.

Kate Bell discussed her paper along with a range of other speakers at the Achieving the Social State event on 13 March at the London School of Economics. Find out more here.