Joseph Henson is lead researcher on Serious Personal Debt at the Centre for Social Justice. Alex Burghart is the CSJ’s Director of Policy.
Last night’s Channel 4 Dispatches, How the Rich Get Richer, revealed the huge disparity in the lives and life chances of Britain’s rich and poor. Fraser Nelson, using data provided by the Centre for Social Justice, showed how the most prosperous in society had, through the great recession, not only retained their position at the top of the tree but had fortified it.
The analysis we produced for Fraser showed how distant the two nations of ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ were:
|Poorest Million People||Richest Million People|
|Male life expectancy||69.6||88.1|
|Fatherless households||38 per cent||11 per cent|
|Children in homes where no adult is in employment||35 per cent||4 per cent|
|Adults on out-of-work benefits||32 per cent||3 per cent|
|Households in social housing||56 per cent||3 per cent|
But Fraser’s excellent programme might as easily have been titled Why the Poor Stay Poor (and, indeed, this was an issue which he discussed). For the past ten years the Centre for Social Justice has been trying to understand why it is that some individuals, families and communities get stuck far behind their neighbours.
What we have been told by our alliance of over 300 small, frontline charities is that the root causes of poverty in these communities are five factors that crop up time and time again. They are: worklessness, family breakdown, educational failure, addiction and serious personal debt. Where you find one of these problems you are likely to find two, where two, three, and so on. Each of them substantially reduces people’s chances of shrugging off poverty – similarly, if you start to eliminate each of these problems, then more and more people are able to escape.
Yet for too long, there has been a failure of central government to take the sort of direct action that would help families break free. Take education. It is a simple fact that poorer children tend to get worse results at school:
Yet it need not be so. The Sunday Times has just ranked Grinling Gibbons school the fourth best in country. This is despite the fact that it is a state school, working on a state school budget, competing against private schools, in which more than half the pupils are poor enough to be on free school meals. By giving her pupils the very best, their extraordinary head teacher, Ms Eubank, is doing one of the single best things possible to help ensure that her pupils children do not go on to be on free school meals themselves.
Fraser has highlighted the link between income and marriage, something which he argues is becoming the preserve of the rich. What the CSJ has repeatedly shown is that family breakdown is the backdrop to many broken lives and that secure, nurturing and loving families are the bedrock of society. Yet despite the fact that it is poorer communities who suffer the most when parents separate, successive governments have done remarkably little to tackle family breakdown. Although the Government’s recent announcement of a family test that considers family stability for all future policy decisions is a welcome start, we still have a mountain to climb given that half of children starting school in our poorest communities are starting school with a broken family.
Similarly there has been a lumbering, long-term failure to tackle the terrible rates of addiction in the UK. Those who are trapped in addiction are highly likely to be out of work and indefinitely stuck on benefits; and we are the addictions capital of Europe – more than 300,000 people in England are addicted to heroin or crack and 1.6 million are addicted to alcohol.
Solving these problems is essential if we are to breathe new life into long-forgotten communities. Communities like one in Orchard Park in Kingston-upon-Hull where 43 per cent of children live in a home where no adult is in work, or like one in Henley in Coventry where 84 per cent of households are stuck in social housing and 53 per cent on out of work benefits.
Good work is already underway. According to the Bank of England, the DWP’s welfare reforms (which were inspired by the CSJ’s work) look like they are helping to reduce worklessness. The number workless households is at a record low, as is the number of children living in households in which no one works, and the number of households in which no one has ever worked is down by 50,000 since 2010. Universal Credit will take things a stage further by allowing people who are moving into work to keep more of their earnings, meaning that the welfare system will not itself be a barrier to employment. This is an attack on hopelessness, creating possibilities and opportunities where there were precious few before.
This sort of thinking, which begins the process of helping people back on their feet, is essential if we are to help the poorest communities break out of the rut they find themselves in. Consequently, earlier this year we published Breakthrough Britain 2015 which sets out exactly how the next government can tackle the root causes of poverty and help more and more families and communities to break free.