In the space of 24 hours this week the government was dealt two damning judgments on its treatment of disadvantaged children. First, on Sunday, came Alan Milburn and the entire social mobility team’s resignation, stating the government lacks “the necessary bandwidth to ensure that the rhetoric of healing social division is matched with reality”. Then the next morning the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s publication of research finding almost 400,000 more children have been plunged into poverty in the past four years. To put it in perspective, that means Theresa May and her predecessors have overseen the first sustained increases in child poverty in this country for 20 years.
Whether the measure is social mobility or standards of living – after years of social security cuts coinciding with stagnant wages and rising costs – there is the lurking feeling that we are watching hard-won progress being thrown away. In the mid-1990s, about a third of children were living in families classed as “lacking the resources for their minimum needs” until Labour governments and the introduction of tax credits (as well as higher employment) saw the rate fall to 27% in 2011-12.
By 2016, David Cameron’s austerity agenda had seen child poverty rates shoot up to 30%. Similarly, just before its mass resignations, the latest annual report by the government’s social mobility watchdog warned that Britain is in a spiral of “ever-growing division” with rural, coastal and former industrial areas left with dwindling prospects. The region I grew up in, the east Midlands, has the accolade of taking 10 of the top 20 spots for the worst regions for social mobility.
With Theresa May’s vow to place fairness and social justice at the heart of her premiership perhaps ringing in his ears, Milburn’s words on Sunday were scathing: “The worst position in politics is to set out a proposition that you’re going to heal social divisions and then do nothing about it.” He’s right – but actually, I think it’s much worse. It isn’t simply that the Conservatives have done nothing to help working-class children’s life chances or wellbeing, but that they’re introducing policies that are actively making them worse.
Look at anti-welfare measures like cutting “in-work” benefits or freezing housing and children’s benefits. Or an education system that’s scrapped education maintenance grants while stripping school budgets to the extent that teachers are unable to afford paper for their pupils. Not to mention the closure of local youth clubs and children’s centres; research from Barnardo’s this week finds funding to early-years children’s services has been cut by almost 50% in some areas since 2010.
Research this week finds funding to early-years children’s services has been cut by almost 50% in some areas since 2010
These measures don’t simply represent the death knell of serious attempts at social mobility in this country; they spread childhood deprivation.
Social mobility, inequality, and absolute income are not unrelated issues – we know, for instance, that reducing inequality helps improve social mobility – but as we respond to the Conservative’s failings, it would be a mistake to put the focus on addressing social mobility specifically.
Social mobility is in many ways an easy political agenda – one that even rightwing politicians are happy to articulate. As a goal it speaks to a very human feeling: a desire for your kids to do that bit better than ourselves. But at its core, it’s a deeply conservative idea: a few “deserving” individuals are helped to make their way up the class system, nothing is done about the conditions that those left behind are expected to live in.
The crime of recent years isn’t merely that a handful of individuals are finding it harder to move up to elite jobs, it’s that there are now millions of families who are struggling to even eat, stay warm, and keep a roof over their heads. And for each of them, the chance of a future with a decent job, secure housing, and good health are increasingly out of reach.
Over the next few years the number of children in poverty is due to soar to a record 5.2 million – that’s an increase of more than a million. As the date for Brexit looms, any sort of domestic agenda is increasingly slipping from view, but addressing this should be a priority.
It isn’t a radical agenda to argue every family should have a safe, warm home and a decent income. As the Rowntree research outlines, an affordable housing programme, lifting the benefit freeze, and providing more adult education are just some practical, tangible ways a government could create change. The Conservatives are undoing decades of progress but there’s one silver lining: the very fact that gains were made before shows, once the Tories lose power, they can be made again.