Monday, January 11, 2016

Poverty and Life Chances: Camerons Third Way?

"....There are 4 vital, social insights that I believe must anchor our plan for extending life chances.
First, when neuroscience shows us the pivotal importance of the first few years of life in determining the adults we become, we must think much more radically about improving family life and the early years.
Second, when we know the importance not just acquiring knowledge, but also developing character and resilience there can be no let-up in our mission to create an education system that is genuinely fit for the 21st century.
Third, it’s now so clear that social connections and experiences are vitally important in helping people get on.
So when we know about the power of the informal mentors, the mixing of communities, the broadened horizons, the art and culture that adolescents are exposed to, it’s time to build a more level playing field with opportunity for everyone, regardless of their background.
And fourth, when we know that so many of those in poverty have specific, treatable problems such as alcoholism, drug addiction, poor mental health we’ve got to offer the right support, including to those in crisis.
This is what I would call a life cycle approach – one that takes people from their earliest years, through schooling, adolescence and adult life.
And I believe if we take the right action in each of these 4 areas combined, with all we are doing to bring our economy back to health, we can make a significant impact on poverty and on disadvantage in our country."
Once everyone has recovered from David Bowie's death, it might be worth paying a little more attention to another David, the Prime Minister, and his speech today. The remarks above were prefaced by a brief critique of left and right 'solutions' to poverty based on economics. I wouldn't be surprised if most of the speech & strategy was written by the Centre for Social Justice (beware, slow website). 
Some of the policy announcements include:
  • extension of relationship support
  • financial education in schools, expanding a pilot CofE scheme designed to help children develop a positive attitude to saving and a responsible attitude to debt. 
  • expanding the 'Troubled Families' programme to another 400,000 families
  • a stronger focus on parenting skills in early years, incentivising the take up of parenting classes and trying to make it a normal part of becoming a parent: "I believe if we are going to extend life chances in our country, it’s time to begin talking properly about parenting and babies and reinforcing what a huge choice having a child is in the first place, as well as what a big responsibility parents face in getting these early years right." (I remember being stunned that, on a parents ante-natal course lasting several weeks, there was not a single bit of input about parenting skills, it was all about the mechanics of late pregnancy, birth, feeding etc. Ante-natal classes and health visitors have a massive opportunity to support parents and to help us learn good habits very early on. Children are too precious and vulnerable to leave this to chance.)
  • a clearer focus on character development in education, alongside the acquisition of knowledge and skills
  • expand the National Citizens Service to cover 60% of 16 year olds
  • targetted mentoring for those most at risk of dropping out of GCSEs
  • the much trailed demolition of ugly housing estates (this is fraught with risk - it will be very easy for this not to serve the people who live there, if the estate is anywhere in or around London then developer can make more money by pricing the poor out of the replacement housing built on the site. Judging by the successive waves of housing built around Yeovil, we are getting worse at building low-crime aesthetically good environments, not better, and building regulations and pressure on housing density are driving this, alongside house prices and affordability)
  • mental health: continued promotion of an open culture around talking about mental illness, support for new mothers, mental health units in A&E, waiting targets for severe illness
  • funding for more research and programmes to treat addiction

If it's done well, this could be one of the most important things this government does. There's evidence here of more in-depth thinking about the causes of poverty than we've seen before. What's interesting is that it goes further than Labour ever dared, in terms of the state taking on more parenting functions (developing character, mentoring). 

The proof will be action, rather than words - mental health spending has fallen under the coalition, and Camerons Conservatives have a poor record on housing policy and the vulnerable. They have a life-threatening blind spot on food banks, and the planned cuts to tax credits would have been a punch in the face to anyone earning below £30,000, though thankfully these were reversed

Whatever the flaws, this policy at last reckons with one of the big social facts of modern Britain, that the family unit in many places no longer does the job it once did, of transmitting value, values, skills and role models from one generation to the next. We have been avoiding the uncomfortable truths for a while,  I hope there can be a new political consensus that we need a mixed economy of social and economic policy to tackle poverty, and some of this new thinking could be vital. But it will count for very little if Cameron continues to dismantle the welfare state.

update: good piece from Tim Montgomerie on what Cameron missed out

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