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Why can’t we talk about social mobility?

Charities and political parties are preventing hard questions from being asked

By Emran Mian  

Alan Milburn's report draws harsh conclusions about the state of British society

Alan Milburn is no longer acting like a politician. Rather than making commitments himself, he is now in the business of holding politicians to theirs—specifically on child poverty and social mobility. The Child Poverty and Social Mobility Commission, which he chairs, published their second “state of the nation” report this week and it’s time, they said, for some honesty.

The Child Poverty Act 2010 set targets for poverty reduction by 2020 that now appear unachievable. Worse than that there’s a strong chance that by 2020 we will have lived through the first decade since the 1960s in which absolute poverty increased. There is some good news for families on low incomes—employment, for example, is high. But even if it were to keep rising to historically unprecedented levels the child poverty target will be missed. Meanwhile around half of the work of austerity is yet to be done. The deficit is stubbornly high, the latest figures from the ONS suggesting that the UK is on track to borrow more than £100bn for the sixth year in a row. Cutting the deficit will in all likelihood further reduce both benefits and services for people in poverty.

So there’s a choice to make. Politicians could continue to profess “noble ambitions” on poverty reduction, as Milburn styles them, while the gap between those and the approaches available to reach them widens. Or, and this is what he recommends, they could “reset our ambitions as a nation in the light of the circumstances in which we find ourselves.”

Admitting failure and starting again though is a hard thing for commitment-philes to do. The Prime Minister’s spokesman responded to the report by saying, “it is through greater employment opportunities for the households in which children grow up that we can best address this issue.” The Commission doesn’t dispute that, far from it, but higher employment alone won’t eradicate child poverty.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said he shared Mr Milburn’s “despair”, and claimed “the Conservatives have basically decided to turn their back on child poverty.” This too is a disappointing response. Milburn isn’t expressing despair, quite the opposite, he is advising politicians to get over missing the existing targets and aim for something more realistic .

The Labour Party, handily, found a way to avoid the issue of the targets entirely. They went on the offensive about something else. Milburn observed in launching the report that Labour’s commitment to raise the minimum wage to £8 per hour by 2020 was unambitious. Merely following the trend in increases since 1997 would take the minimum wage beyond that amount. A proper ambition, the Commission’s report suggests, would be to “make Britain a Living Wage country by 2025 at the latest.” But rather than responding on either that point or the wider issue of the child poverty targets, Labour focused on contesting Milburn’s arithmetic about the future level of the minimum wage.

What is harming the Commission’s attempt to have a proper conversation further is that the outrage of voluntary organisations and charities, like the political parties, is drowning out the warning about the present targets. Barnardo’s, for example, greeted the report by saying, “it’s shocking that poverty looms for a record number of children by 2020” and The Children’s Society said that missing the targets would be a “national disgrace.” This tone of criticism doesn’t resonate for me but it’s possible to agree with the point of substance and ask: well, what would a less disgraceful country do? Or, as the Commission puts it, “2015 is an inflection point.”

I’m not certain what that means. But, I do know that we will only find the courage to make new plans to combat poverty once we accept that the current approach isn’t working.


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