There can be no social mobility without more affordable housing

We need action to solve poverty and increase social mobility following plans from both JRF and the Social Mobility Commission, says Chris Goulden.

As usual, the annual State of the Nation report from Alan Milburn’s Social Mobility Commission (SMC) is an impressive piece of work. This year’s report draws attention to Britain’s ‘deep social mobility problem’ and identifies four major drivers: the country’s local economies, its education system, and its labour and housing markets.

This echoes much of JRF’s strategy to solve poverty, based on a five-point plan to tackle all drivers of poverty in the UK today.

The strength of emphasis on housing and local economies is a welcome new development in the SMC’s report this year. Both of these are vital areas for action to reduce poverty (concerned with creating decent living standards for all), as well as social mobility (ensuring that people can reach their potential irrespective of their background). However, the report over-does the role of home ownership and underplays that of social renting. JRF research has shown that a fall in the proportion of social housing is likely to lead to a rise in poverty. The country needs ambitious plans for more genuinely affordable housing as part of an overall target of building 300,000 every year. Experience shows the market alone is unlikely to deliver this.

Tackling poverty and boosting social mobility

Tackling poverty and boosting social mobility are different, but closely linked, aims. It will be impossible to increase social mobility unless we also tackle persistent poverty. The report’s recommendations would be stronger if they put a greater emphasis on a role for social security, including Housing Benefit. The marked rise in in-work poverty in recent years has shown that, for many people, finding work will not necessarily mean a way out of poverty. Our strategy shows that social security has a vital function in providing a buffer against poverty for those in and out of work. Very low levels of out-of-work benefits for single adults and young people are a contributory factor in the destitution experienced by 1.25 million people in the UK last year. High costs of living beyond housing also matter and create a living standards squeeze for people trying to improve their and their family’s lives.

Proposals for childcare and neighbourhoods

Despite these gaps in approach, there is much more that unites the SMC proposals with JRF’s than divides us. Indeed, they draw directly on policy development and research by JRF on childcare and disconnected neighbourhoods. More explicitly, they add their weight to JRF’s proposal that the Government should simplify the English childcare system into a single funding stream, capping parental contributions with lower maximum fees for families living in poverty. The SMC also agrees that the proposed £140 million set aside to help lever in private finance for redevelopment across 100 run-down estates is likely to be insufficient, and should be focused on fewer areas if the budget is not increased.

Crucially, both strategies include a call to move beyond simply placing the responsibility at the door of the state. Employers, professions, parents and charities are also included in the call to arms. There can be no excuses now for governments and their partners not to take the long-term action needed on poverty and social mobility.