Poverty in the round
This morning I attended a fascinating discussion at the launch of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Monitoring Poverty and Social Exlusion 2009 report. The report, which looks at the state of the nation in terms of our poorest and most marginalized communities, makes for depressing reading. Across a terrifying array of measures we are failing to make an adequate impact on the lives of those Britons who have the least. What is all the more worrying is that progress in reducing in-work poverty, child poverty and social exclusion began to falter before the onset of the recession – the lesson appears to be that ‘it’s not just the economy, stupid’ when it comes to explaining our failings in these areas.
Of course, disturbing as this report may be, it will not come as a surprise to progressive conservatives; we work from the maxim that conservative means are best placed to achieve progressive ends – we are therefore not shocked that a centre-left government was unable to meet its own targets for the poorest. This Government has experienced very limited success in many of its poverty policies because its approach was wrong; not simply because it ran out of cash.
That’s not to say that Labour doesn’t have achievements to be proud of here. The very fact that all three parties talk about poverty, that there are programmes in place and money being spent, is something to proud of. Poverty is on the political radar because Labour has never truly given up – it is important, if they are to live up to the progressive mantle, that the Conservative Party learns from the grit and grim determination of the left in approaching the seemingly intractable problems of social exclusion and poverty. Whilst we certainly need a progressive conservative approach to these issues in terms of policy it would be quite wrong to allow any form of apathy to creep in.
But what is to be done? These are complicated and cross-cutting issues that will not be solved overnight. We do, however, need to be pragmatic, learn from what has worked and embrace the prescription of some bitter pills. Firstly, as is alluded to in the report, some things simply will not and cannot be solved by big government. This is an instinctive Conservative position but is also born out by evidence of the inability of this Government to impact on self-proclaimed priorities such as teenage pregnancy and rates of volunteering. There are, however, schemes that we know work – on the Castle Vale estate in Birmingham they have slashed the number of young mums by running peer-to-peer mentoring and making use of girls’ existing social networks.
Of course we can’t simply pick that programme up and replicate it all over the country but we can learn the lesson that co-designed, local solutions can make a difference where the state has failed.
Finally, those bitter pills. Progressive conservatives do not want to punish people for being poor but we do recognize that there is a greater injustice in poverty when it falls on those who have tried to be responsible and have attempted to be self-reliant. The in-work poverty rates exposed by the report are a national disgrace; it should simply never be the case that people who go out to work fall below a minimum standard of income. The priority for a progressive conservative government would be making sure that work paid, that people can tell the difference in their everyday lives between responsibility and fecklessness. For this reason, the Progressive Conservatism Project is currently working on developing an escalator tax-cut for the lowest paid. The policy is designed to ensure that, as we emerge blinkingly from the recession, the first people to benefit are those who work for the least money.
It is depressing to take stock of our collective failure to resolve these vital issues – but it can also be invigorating. If the Conservative Party stand by their rhetoric and adopt measures that reward hard work, encourage communities and engage the poor then perhaps we really can reach a progressive destination via a conservative route.