Improving life chances is about poverty as much as social mobility

Progress on child poverty shows this is a solvable problem - and reducing the UK's levels of poverty is necessary if we are to improve social mobility, says Chris Goulden.

So, for a while longer at least, child poverty remains part of the formal responsibility of the Commission led by Alan Milburn, which published its annual review last week. Next year, it’s almost certain the focus will be entirely on social mobility and life chances, following changes to the Commission’s remit laid out in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill.

This isn’t just a semantic shift; poverty and social mobility are connected but quite different phenomena. Increasing social mobility is about taking steps towards more equality of opportunity so that people with talent and skills can succeed, no matter what their circumstances. Reducing poverty, on the other hand, is concerned with building decent living standards so that everyone has the freedom to participate in society, whatever their talent or potential is. The debate can become even more confused by those who argue that increasing social mobility is the solution to reducing poverty.

A high level of mobility, where your position in life doesn’t depend strongly on that of your parents, often goes hand in hand with low levels of poverty across different countries. However, this is not always the case. A focus on increasing mobility alone and not reducing poverty risks ignoring the low standard of living experienced by many people, and not just children, in the UK today. Indeed, the Commission’s report draws attention to the problem of one million children currently living in persistent poverty (defined as being in poverty three years out of four in a row). Dealing with the poverty of their parents now will be essential as a foundation for improving the opportunities of children by the time they reach adulthood and have children of their own.

The Commission’s report rightly commends some of the progress on reducing child poverty since the late 1990s, including:

  • a decline by a third in child poverty;
  • fewer children living with parents who aren’t in paid work;
  • a high and increasing rate of employment; and
  • a gradual narrowing of gaps in exam results between richer and poorer children.

This is important evidence that poverty is a solvable problem.

But what about the living standards and opportunities for children living in poverty today? There are still big gaps. In particular, the quality and ease of access to affordable childcare is a problem across most parts of the UK and more support is needed for mothers to get into well-paid and flexible jobs. Quality also needs to improve in schools with high numbers of poorer children, and the transition into the workplace for non-graduates is also important. High levels of in-work poverty and low pay are also highlighted as areas of concern in the report.

While action in all these areas of policy would help, poverty matters at all ages, and the failure to take an all-age approach is one of the stumbling blocks to serious progress. The seeds for deprivation in old age are sown during working life. An ‘all-out assault on poverty’ requires a comprehensive approach* across people’s whole lives. Just as important is the role of markets in determining whether we can reach a decent living standard – many of the problems of poverty are driven by high housing, childcare and energy costs. These need to be part of the analysis of the problem, and the solution to poverty and better life chances rather than a simple focus on improving social mobility.

It is impossible to imagine a socially mobile society that also has high levels of persistent poverty – reducing the UK’s relatively high levels of poverty is a necessary condition for those concerned with improving social mobility.

*JRF will be publishing the UK’s first costed and evidence based strategy to reduce poverty across all age groups in 2016.