David Cameron’s ‘all-out assault’ speech has shifted the debate in the approach to tackling poverty, says Julia Unwin. But there are significant gaps in his strategy.
David Cameron is a man in a hurry. Set to stand down ahead of the 2020 election, the PM has promised an ‘all-out assault on poverty’ in what he calls a ‘reforming decade’. His major speech on poverty this week could not be more timely and important. The Conservative-led coalition oversaw a period of flat-lining poverty levels. There was welcome progress on the Pupil Premium, Universal Credit and falling worklessness, but the debate and, ultimately, action was stymied by battles over living standards and welfare reform.
This speech early in the Parliament has moved the debate and the Government’s intentions forward. There was a notable shift in tone: he acknowledged that poverty is real - “some material poverty still exists” - and admitted to the scale of the problem (“millions of people”), showing that he appreciates the fact that poverty goes beyond a small minority of troubled families or individuals. And we know the task of reducing substantial levels of poverty is enormous. By 2020, we expect at least one in four families to be in poverty, notwithstanding further expected cuts to Universal Credit at the end of this Parliament.
It was an ambitious gallop through some of the most complex challenges people face, such as addiction, mental health and relationship breakdown. Getting to grips with these will be an enormous task, but could reap enormous rewards: child poverty alone costs the Treasury £29 billion each year in public spending on repairing damaged lives, combined with lost economic output and tax revenue. JRF will be doing more research into the role of individuals and relationships in addressing poverty: the PM was right to say we need a new understanding of poverty that includes the role of families and individuals, as well as the structural factors that cause and trap people in poverty.
It would be naive to think an approach which focuses heavily on individuals can be a cure-all, though it is right that the Prime Minister’s thinking should cut across departmental divides and he is also right that we need a different approach. He set out his stall about a new partnership between communities, the voluntary sector and faith groups, employers and the state. In 2013, to mark 70 years since the Beveridge report, I called for a new settlement between the state, market and community, in the shared understanding that we all have a responsibility to address poverty.
The Government’s Life Chances strategy will be published in the spring, so there is time to plug some important gaps. We have seen two of the three actors addressed in the speech, so now the assault on poverty must be embraced by business, employers and landlords, so that markets work for people and prosperity is built on the contributions all of us can make.
Likewise, early years, education, complex needs and mentoring were the PM’s four strands to tackling poverty. All are vital, but so is action to reduce the high cost of living. For example, the cost and quality of housing has to be central to a life chances strategy. It’s heartening to see regeneration back on the agenda, given how people’s homes and environment can be a poverty trap. But without careful stewardship, the homes that could be built in place of old sink estates may not be affordable to the people who once lived there, forcing them out of their communities.
Already we are seeing a ‘home ownership at all costs’ approach to housing through Starter Homes and Right to Buy. We risk diminishing the limited supply of homes we already have in pursuit of the property-owning democracy, and side-lining people on low incomes who are struggling to afford rented homes - ownership may never be an option for them.
The zeal of a reforming decade may stall if we fail to get to grips with the equally big structural challenges that cause hardship and trap people in poverty. These need an all-out assault too, as part of a comprehensive strategy that includes welfare, public services, economic growth, employers, landlords and families all playing their part.
Poverty is risky, wasteful and costly, for individuals, the economy and the state. We have reached a sensible diagnosis of some of the problems and how to address them. Fundamentally, this isn’t about the failure of two contrasting approaches and providing yet another: it is about fusing them all, to reach the same goal of ending poverty. This week, we saw that this may yet be possible.