The poor, are they always with us?


I will respond to all the comments individually, but I must start by thanking those who responded to my transparent cry for some online TLC. I like being complimented as much as the next person but more important, in the context of a busy responsible job here at the RSA, is the reassurance that my blogging isn’t entirely self indulgent.

I am currently on my way to a Governors’ meeting at the RSA Academy in Tipton. I am looking forward in particular to hearing from the head boy and girl and seeing progress on the new building. The Academy is in a disadvantaged area of a poor part of the country and one which has suffered more than most in the recession. So on the train journey up it was powerful to read the latest poverty report produced by the New Policy Institute for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

The top line is that levels of poverty, unemployment and repossession have been rising, not just with the recession, but since 2004. Overall poverty levels are now back at 2000 levels, the number of people out of work and looking for a job is as high as it has been since 1997 and repossession rates are back at 1994 levels. How we respond to these figures will, of course, reflect our different beliefs and values, but I wonder whether some important changes over the last decade may shift the terms of the debate?

Those who see inequality as fair, a reflection of merit or effort may find it harder now to argue that the poor are to blame for their plight. First, surely we all accept that there are many victims – particularly among the young – of a recession caused not by the failings of the general workforce but by greed and stupidity among the rich. Second, the last decade and more has seen the gradually tightening of welfare to work rules. Hardly anyone is now exempt from the requirements to look for or prepare for work. Third, a growing constituency among those in poverty is the working poor. According to the NPI report there are now two million children living in low-income working households, the highest figure ever recorded. Yet, all this is despite the redistributive impact of Labour tax and spend policies since 1997 (to be highlighted in the next few days in a report from the 2020 Public Services Trust, based at the RSA).

All of which suggests that the debate we need about the kind of society we want, and what this means for all of us, needs to be braver and more far reaching. To make a fundamental difference may require society-wide commitment and mobilisation. As Professor Stein Ringen recently argued at the RSA, for all its efforts New Labour never explained that all of us – not just ministers and officials – would have to play a role in creating a fairer society. The biggest danger is that, having had a Government which has tried to tackle poverty and inequality, we look at the grim statistics published today and abandon the hope of progress, perhaps accepting endemically high levels of poverty as he inevitable corollary of globalisation. Whether starting from a political perspective on the right, left or the centre I hope RSA Fellows agree with me that this is a danger we should seek to counter in our lectures, our research and in the activities of our Fellows.

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