Back in April Heidi Allen MP, pressing for an end to the Government’s benefit freeze made the point that “The Work and Pensions Select Committee has compiled evidence that shows that ending the benefits freeze would lift 200,000 people out of poverty.” Reducing the number of families facing poverty must be a priority.
Now we have Boris Johnson as the new Prime Minister making all kinds of promises for a positive future, in order to justify an approach to Brexit that is likely to result in catastrophe for families on the lowest incomes, we need more than ever to take this problem seriously and for the long term. It is no good saying that the best way out of poverty is through employment and that we must make work pay if the main lever to make the income from work more attractive is to reduce the benefits income available below the amount you need to make ends meet.
However for policy on income poverty this must be just a start. There is no doubt that poverty and its effects on children and families in the UK is growing. Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation released in early 2018 showed that almost a half of all children living in the UK’s largest cities are in families experiencing poverty. For young people in the north of England there is a double whammy according to the Children’s Commissioner. In a report also from early 2018 the Children’s Commissioner found that children in the north are more likely to struggle at school or drop out of education altogether. Many council areas in the north, the report found, had twice the national average level of children not in education or training. In London children receiving free school meals are twice as likely to go on to university as similar children in the north.
Whilst we now know that the so called “Northern Powerhouse” initiative was more PR than reality it is true that many areas in the north have seen investment and redevelopment. However children in those areas see this as something done to where they live and not for them. Shiny new buildings don’t impress because they are not something that offers a tangible promise that can be believed in.
For policies that address poverty sustainably they must address not only access to employment and the problems of low income but also the level of engagement that enables people to believe that the opportunities that exist are also for them. Top down policies whether reforming or scrapping Universal Credit or making people provide job seeking plans just serve to re-enforce the idea that stuff is done to you not for you. It’s all about proving you are eligible to an uncaring state.
In his recent book Re-imaging Britain Archbishop Justin Welby makes the point that the focus on education as being solely about attainment actually drives exclusion and helps perpetuate poverty. It is not be surprising then that data Welby draws on suggests that the poor not only stay poor but are the least well equipped to adjust to and get the most from our rapidly changing society.
In a world where technology and information is changing rapidly being equipped to function in that environment is essential but that is about more than operational skill. Recognising schools, colleges, and universities as communities that can do more than just churn out a productive workforce is central to improving the life chances of everyone. Education needs to be a source for developing shared values and understanding without which the inequalities we are seeking to address will perpetuate. Telling young people their only value is in the skills they can develop and the marks they can get will only continue the exclusion of those who see themselves and their families as having no stake in our shiny new future.
Education and training that creates self worth, that creates an interest in who we are, where we are, and that we have something to offer is known to build community. So often it is lauded as the innovation that gets young people out of gang culture or petty crime. Perhaps we need to see that it also can engage those who might just end up discouraged and face a future in poverty. Making education about the whole person not just their economic value can create communities where everyone can see an opportunity they can believe in.