Where is the anti-poverty strategy?

In 1964 Lyndon Johnson in the USA declared “War on Poverty”. In what was known as Great Society legislation he created Medicare and Medicaid, economic opportunities and vocational training programmes, Head Start and Follow Through – two great educational recovery programmes – and gender equality measures. He announced that poverty was the peacetime enemy within, which undermined social and moral advance.

The UK legislated for anti-poverty measures in the 20th century, notably with the Labour Government of 1945-1951 which created the welfare state and social safety nets we assume today as foundations of our moral order – free health care, adequate housing, benefits as a right, universal, free secondary education and more. Attlee (its Prime Minister) master-minded the UK’s first and last all-embracing anti-poverty drive. But since then, there has never been an overarching poverty-reduction strategy, though we have had individual measures – such as Educational Priority Areas in the 1960s. Broadly speaking, Labour administrations have extended and strengthened the public sphere in support of the poor and vulnerable; while Conservative governments have mostly eroded and disabled public services.

In fact, what we have today is little less than a poverty-generation programme – a concerted programme under the policy umbrella of Austerity to redistribute money from the poor to the wealthy. Current social and economic policy is designed – it’s hardly an accidental side-effect – to create poverty and destitution. Perhaps the most transparent and egregious example of this redistribution of public money is the disbursement of special area grants for disadvantaged cities and constituencies. Rishi Sunk, speaking in Tunbridge Wells during his leadership election campaign, boasted:

“I managed to start changing the funding formulas, to make sure areas like this are getting the funding they deserve because we inherited a bunch of formulas from Labour that shoved all the funding into deprived urban areas and that needed to be undone.

[In fact, in 2020, Robert Jenrick, then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, admitted that he had approved a £multi-million grant for deprived areas to his junior minister’s wealthy constituency (Jake Berry, MP), and, in return, Berry had allocated £25m to Jenrick’s constituency – which was 270th on the list of area deprivation.]

Austerity has been the enabling fiscal logic that has allowed this massive transfer of wealth from the poor to the wealthy – it is the outrider to greed. The New Economics Foundation calculates that the introduction of austerity under the Coalition Government and continuing today has launched an additional 1.5m people into poverty, as a result of departing from 2010 Labour policies – with single parents the hardest hit (the majority of them, women). The Institute for Policy Research at the University of Bath calculates that cash benefits to the unemployed in 2017 stood at 0.1% of GDP, whereas the OECD average was 0.6%, with countries like France, Spain, Belgium and Finland spending up to 2% of GDP.

What does poverty-generation look like? Well, consider this. If you are single and over 25, your monthly Universal Credit payment (UC) will be £368.74. PER MONTH. Some people still claim Jobseekers Allowance (‘allowance’, note – not by right), not UC and that stands at £84.78 PER WEEK. Our pensions are lower than almost every OECD economy. Currently the UK has an overall net replacement rate of 58.1% from mandatory pensions for an average earner, below the OECD average of 69.1% (net replacement rate is pre-retirement earnings divided by your pension entitlement). And so the statistics go – all of them. The UK, being the 5th largest economy in the world, spends less than most advanced countries in almost every category of social expenditure, including health services. These breathtakingly low figures are the active generators of poverty. Consider this: more than 40% of people in Britain who claim benefits are in work.

So – where is our anti-poverty strategy? The answer is ‘blowing in the winds’ of austerity and extremist right-wing fiscal policies. The chances of a change any time soon is remote. Were the Conservatives to lose the next election in 2024 and Labour to win with a good working majority, what might happen? Well, the 1945-1951 Labour government showed what can be done in a short time – just don’t listen to the pessimists and pundits who argue that it would take two labour administrations to recover a humanistic society, properly resourced. Reconstruction today somewhat parallels the reconstruction that took place back in the 1940s, though it is a lesser challenge and starts from a higher base. However, we have yet to see an expression of the political will or wit to turn that into a promise. Meanwhile, the obstacle to anti-poverty action is greed and lack of moral obligation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s