The State, The Market, The Community and the Individual (Julia Unwin)
Our social contract is being rapidly re-drawn, and there are few spaces and opportunities for discussion, and little time for consideration or reflection. The defining political debate for the next few years concerns the relationship between the state, the market, the community and the individual – and as lines get drawn, and the consensus about the social contract alters, there are three features on which I would like us to reflect.
The stereotyping and stigmatisation of people who are poor
There has been an audible coarsening of the tone of discussion about people who live in poverty. While the poor and dispossessed have always been described as ‘other’ there is new tone which ignores evidence, assumes poor people have entirely separate and different motivations and desires, and clouds debate. The most overt example if this is the conflation of poverty and worklessness. Instead of acknowledging that half of all children living in poverty have a working parent, that many working families claim housing benefit, and that therefore state benefits are going to make life tolerable for very poorly paid people, a lazy discourse has developed which allows a low level of income to be seen as irrefutable evidence of idleness.
This coarsening then allows for some disturbing pieces of policy development, all based on an apparent assumption that poor people are either permanently infantilised or in other ways entirely different. The changes to housing benefit mean that someone on a low wage is required to remain living in a shared house, effectively a bed sit, until they are 35, not 25, as is currently the case. The pronouncements about housing benefit equate low pay with no work, and so in effect insult those who are poorly rewarded. And the desire to build a ‘big society’ fails repeatedly to acknowledge the vast contribution that very poor people make to community resilience. Any search for the springs of social solidarity will rapidly point to communities in which the poorest of the country support each other, and make the work of public services possible. Stereotyping and stigmatising people who have very little does not just coarsen our public debate in a profoundly un-Christian way, it also negates the major contribution made by poor people to the society in which we live.
Closely associated with this, and made possible by this discourse, is the willingness to use the threat of destitution as a means of driving behaviour change. To threaten the withholding of benefit is to threaten destitution. Such a threat, even were it tolerable in a civilised society, does not drive the desired behaviour, and indeed, the evidence suggests, will tend to do the opposite. But crucially, from a moral perspective, it applies sanctions to people living in poverty that cannot be applied to the rest of us.
Just as damaging is the current tendency to ignore the distance between those in poverty and those deemed to be well off. The Daily Telegraph headline the day after the CSR which claimed that ‘middle income people were paying more’ when the accompanying article described the top 15% of income earners, confuses the territory in an unhelpful way.
Careless criticism of the agencies of charitable and public support
It has become commonplace to dismiss the efforts of those who seek to help and build social solidarity.
This approach assumes that there are contributors to public expenditure and there are recipients of benefits from such expenditure. But in fact we all benefit from an education system, a health service, a benefits system that insures us against our own vulnerability. And we benefit not just on the occasions when we use these services, but because the services exist at all. Our lives are immeasurably happier, safer and more pleasant because there is limited evidence of destitution on our streets. Collective sharing of risk does not just insure us as individuals, it also enhances our society and makes it a better place in which to live. The development of common good is a worthy goal of public policy which goes far beyond the series of transactions to which the Welfare State can be glibly reduced.
Closely aligned to this is a willingness to castigate parts of the apparatus of state or philanthropic support, without necessarily considering the evidence that shapes these judgements. During his CSR Statement the Chancellor criticised housing associations for, in effect, housing the very poorest. Never mind that this might actually fulfil their charitable and philanthropic objectives, it was acceptable to dismiss these independent bodies as failures for their provision of housing to the poorest. So too it has become seen as normal to decry the complex system of support to people whose lives are very complicated, and to describe it as having failed. While JRF evidence does make it clear that we need a radical overhaul, this needs to be a carefully considered and planned one, and one that respects the knowledge and skills of those who use the system, as well as those who work in it.
Careless dismissal of institutions that support people in poverty can very quickly become dismissal of those people.
Failure to think about the future
So where are we now? The Government is committed to reducing public expenditure considerably over a short period of time. That in itself is a challenge. It is also committed to decentralising significantly, and ensuring that power is devolved to local and neighbourhood level. That is demanding. Changes need to be made with a scalpel not a chainsaw, otherwise the outcome of this major transformation will be increased poverty, more people in housing need, and a failure to address the most pressing social problems of our time.
The current benefits system is being overhauled in an effort to simplify it and make work pay. There is no question that the existing system is complex and there are very high financial disincentives to work for many. But there are problems that need ironing out with the Universal Credit, the new system.
The rate at which benefits are withdrawn in Universal Credit, and interaction with income tax and NI, means that some people are facing higher financial disincentives to earn than they did under the old system and many important areas are still to be resolved. So, whilst the Universal Credit could help take people out of poverty by making them more likely to enter jobs (especially short-hours ones), the risk is that the system does not help them to progress into work. We know that poorly paid insecure work does not provide lasting routes out of poverty.
However a flexible and sensitive welfare system is only one element in any anti-poverty strategy. Jobs need to pay enough, training needs to be available to allow for progression and we must remember the need for flexible and affordable child-care that enables parents to work. To make a real difference, we need to tackle poverty in a holistic and comprehensive manner. The way communities are shaped and built is also set to change. The planning system is being localised in a way that will make it easier for better off neighbourhoods to protect their environments, and will make it extremely difficult to build new housing. And the introduction of shorter term tenancies, while sometimes useful, will make it harder to build communities. There is a real risk that these new planning laws will increase segregation between the poor and everyone else.
All these changes are taking place during a period when the global challenges of our overheating planet and ageing population are becoming more and more pressing.
We know a number of things about the future. We can say with some confidence that:
Demography will follow its current trajectory – we will live longer, more of us will have disabilities and people with learning difficulties will more readily live into old age.
We will face shortages of carbon, oil and money over the next few decades.
What we don’t know is what will happen to the labour market and what it means for people in poverty although all the labour market projections suggest that the divide between the well off and the poorest will only increase, and that the rungs on the ladder of aspiration are disappearing fast.
As stewards of the planet we are also stewards of those who are in need, and the failure to account for the future, or to prepare for that future seems to me to be a breach of stewardship. A number of indicators point to just such a failure:
A benefits system that for decades has promoted work as the only alternative to poverty, even while recognising that more than half of all really poor children live in a household with a working adult. In other words, for them, work has not paid.
The use of the housing benefit lever to control expenditure, not to drive the building of new, greener housing
The long delayed failure to grapple with both the costs and the quality of long term care. (The appointment of Andrew Dilnot to lead this review makes me feel so much better), but it is a problem that has waited for a long time for adequate response.
All three of these weaknesses in our current discourse about poverty, inequality and the nature of the new social contract diminish the debate, and make the development of an ethical or moral framework for considering this contract inaccessible. Any new social contract should be based on an understanding of:
- The reality and complexity of people’s lives;
- An understanding of the common values, common desires and common needs of all people, whether poor or wealthy;
- A concern to consider evidence – from lived experience, from research, from practice, and to consider all of this in a framework which attends to what the future might hold, not a misplaced nostalgia for what the past might once have held.
Our social contract is always, and will always, be changing. But the damage to people who are already struggling is enormous, and the costs of this will be borne by future generations. We will all pay the long-term price for social change that is not managed in a way that protects the very poorest.
Understanding in the form of both compassion and evidence is essential if we are to live in a better society.
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