Cameron life chances - RSA

Blog: Cameron on ‘life chances’ – thoughtful but falling short


  • Economics and Finance
  • Employment
  • Education
  • Health & wellbeing
  • Institutional reform

It is easy to be dismissive of David Cameron’s speech on poverty and life chances – and many are. However, this is a mistake. He is to be congratulated for engaging intelligently with a difficult area.

No-one has cracked these challenges and a range of approaches have merit – many of which, such as an emphasis on social networks, were contained within the speech (our own work on connected communities is relevant here). Redistribution and state programmes alone cannot fix deeply ingrained structures of deprivation- positive social supports and networks are needed too.

There were a number of areas where Cameron’s analysis became problematic. His vision of education as a combination of ‘knowledge acquisition’ and ‘character’ seemed incomplete. What knowledge and what characteristics? Is resilience learned on the playing fields plus a rigourous exam culture with ‘tiger’ parents really the basis of new vision of life chances? It seems difficult to believe that these alone will cut the knot of ‘how social problems combine, of how they reinforce each other, how they can manifest themselves throughout someone’s life and how the opportunity gap gets generated as a result’. The solutions are not up to the challenge he sets and they are far from ‘transformative’ (and could even become counter-productive).

At one point, the speech absolutely hit the nail on the head:

“Individuals and families who are in poverty crave security – for them, it’s the most important value of all.

But those who are struggling often have no security and no real chance of security.”

Security is absolutely the way to create a foundation for better lives and a greater possibility of many finding a route out of poverty. It is an argument that has been made by the RSA a number of times: security, opportunity and pathways to more creative lives depend upon security. He is also absolutely right in his criticism of the (implicit view) of some on the left when approaching anti-poverty policy: “built around increased welfare provision and more government intervention.” The left has tended to be generous with welfare support but interventionist in people’s lives.

This implies that the Prime Minister’s approach is less generous when it comes to welfare and less interventionist. Welfare has certainly become less generous in real terms over the last few years (with the exception of pensions). However, and this is where the Prime Minister has made a profound mistake, the state has not become ‘less interventionist’. It has become enormously more interventionist. In fact, the willingness of Governments to intervene directly in people’s lives has been increasing for at least a generation. Perhaps a chat with his Secretary of State for Work and Pensions might have helped in putting together this speech. The state is more inferring and arbitrary than it has ever been.

It is absolutely right that those who are struggling often have no security and no real chance of security. And this is caused by the interplay of an insecure labour market and a highly interfering, sanctioning state. People are caught between the insecurity of the market and the unpredictability of the modern state. It is a state of constant uncertainty. Therefore, it is extremely difficult to navigate out of this for any period of time for those at the sharp end.  

Employment, ie those in any type of work, is likely to continue to rise. So will work that is uncertain, ‘flexible’ (for the employer), and ‘gig’ based. When work is spread through on-line platforms, from cleaners and taxi drivers to coders and designers, the notion of involuntary ‘unemployment’ may itself become redundant. Out of work? Get on-line and offer your time and services to Handy, Task Rabbit, or Deliveroo. The uncertainty, even in good times, is not likely to be limited to those on the lowest earnings. It could well work its way up the income ladder. And what will that do for stable family life? If insecurity is the enemy of life chances then we should be far more worried about the interaction of welfare and the labour market than we are.

It is for these reasons, amongst other challenges, that the RSA has concluded the UK needs to take a very serious look at and trial a Universal Basic Income paid to each individual with the amount dependent upon age (roughly £3500 for each adult). In a world of increasing insecurity, a basic foundation, whilst by no means all of the answer, would be considerable help. It would enable people the freedom to take a greater degree of control over their lives.

A greater sense of agency could enable better long-term planning. It could help people with the confidence to choose the right work rather than any work (helping them improve their skills and contributing to better productivity in the process), to educate themselves rather than chase their tails, and to provide those social supports to others that are so important in improving life chances. There would be a stronger incentive to work than the current system (Basic Income allows people to keep more of their additional earnings than is usually the case with the current system). I don’t claim to have the answers on how we crack poverty but I do believe that Basic Income is a better starting point.

David Cameron’s speech contained a compelling underlying analysis but suffered from an ill-fitting policy and institutional agenda. The speech opens up a conversation about the principles on which an effective system to enhance life chances can be created. That’s a healthy thing. It’s just not the current state; it’s something very different.   

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