Gavin Poole is Director of the Centre for Social Justice. He writes for ConservativeHome about his new report which ranks the Coalition's progress in helping people to follow what the CSJ calls "the five pathways out of poverty".
The Coalition will survive this first real test. Cabinet fall outs and public spats aside, its leaders need each other and they know it. Members of the Government understand better than anyone that they require a record to defend on general election day. For the only thing worse than answering accusations of betrayal, is doing so with nothing to show for it.
Both sides have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build that record. Balance the books yes, but there is a chance to do something more extraordinary for Britain, especially for those trapped in poverty. For years successive governments have failed to define poverty or confront its root causes. Instead, politicians have become obsessed with an arbitrary line that measures income inequality, set typically at 60 per cent national median income. This has driven almost every poverty initiative. Vast swathes of public money have been thrown at specific groups who live below this line in an attempt to lift them above it. Accordingly, through tweaks to our perverse welfare system, this so-called poverty measure has meant that households living in poverty one day can wake free from it the next. But ultimately this strategy has failed those who most need help. A few extra pounds in the pocket are insufficient to break poverty’s suffocating culture of damage and despair.
Last May it appeared we finally had a Government that ‘got it’. In particular we commended the Prime Minister for realising that if you look closer at poverty, it has five common causes and consequences. The CSJ calls these the pathways to poverty, and we’ve found them time and again in Britain’s deprived communities. They are family breakdown, educational failure, economic dependency and worklessness, serious personal debt, and addiction to drugs and alcohol. Crucially, the pathways are interconnected and intergenerational. Our research shows that a child who experiences family breakdown is more likely to fail at school. Someone who fails at school is less likely to find work and more likely to rely on benefits. Someone living on benefits is more likely to fall into debt. And so the cycle continues. They demand life-changing interventions, not just income adjustments.
12 months after the Coalition’s formation, the CSJ publishes the first of its annual report cards. It reveals that the Government’s first year efforts on poverty have been frustratingly mixed. Brave welfare reform and an encouraging new direction for drug and alcohol policy have been undermined by poor implementation of bold education plans – especially Free Schools – and compromise-driven inaction in tackling our devastating culture of family breakdown. And it is in its watering down of commitments to confront family breakdown, that the Conservative leadership must face the strongest criticism. Strengthening families – by supporting marriage and two parent families, leading effective early intervention and investing in preventative solutions – is foundational to tackling poverty and were key pre-election promises. Yet as our report card outlines, bold but necessary family policy has been the biggest victim of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat compromise. What we’ve had from the Government since May last year is simply business as usual; this will do nothing to tackle Britain’s devastating pandemic of family breakdown.
Undoubtedly, by committing to economic stability and building a society that lives within its means, the Government is doing the right thing. Despite raising clear concerns about aspects of the implementation of public expenditure cuts – such as with the full household benefit cap – urgent deficit reduction will protect people in the longer term. But there is a group of people detached from the rest of society and helping them is of paramount importance to us all. If the Prime Minister is serious about building a social recovery alongside an economic one, he should start playing hard ball when it comes to families. It is time for courage, not concessions.
> More at the CSJ.