In the annual Sir John Graham lecture in 2011, Iain Duncan-Smith identified five pathways to poverty: family breakdown; poor education; debt; addiction, and welfare dependency and worklessness.
These pathways to poverty feed on each other in powerful ways, and can push families into damaging, downward spirals from which it is almost impossible to retrieve themselves.
Let’s have a look at a few of these. Take family breakdown—evidence is that those growing up in a broken home are:
– 75 percent more likely to fail at school;
– 70 percent more likely to become addicted to drugs; and
– 50 percent more likely to have an alcohol problem.
When it came to addiction we found that almost one third of young people who have been excluded from school have been involved with substance abuse. And so often these pathways had a knock-on effect on further destructive behaviour, particularly criminal activity. We found that 70 percent of young offenders were from lone parent families, and we estimated that something like half of the UK’s prison population were
problem drug users.
And, even more interesting, we found that as many as half of all young people going through the youth justice system had been in government care or had substantial involvement with social services.
When the government looked after them, the government failed them.
Even more, in some senses, than their own families had failed them. . .
The radical overhaul of child protection and care announced by Social Development Minister Anne Tolley aims to make sure that children whose families fail them will not be failed by those charged to look after them.
But what about the parents who should be looking after them?
Lance O”Sullivan, Northland GP and New Zealander of the Year, says this in his autobiography. He argues that if children are fed and their health problems addressed they will be more likely to do better at school and there’s a greater chance of them being able to break out of the cycle of poverty.
He says we cannot hold children responsible for their parents’ failings, and he’s right.
But that begs the question of what is done for the adults?
If they are on benefits or low wages they will be getting money for their children.
It’s not fair on the children not to help them, but is it fair on the taxpayer to pay twice – first to the parents and then when they fail, whether or not that failure is through circumstances beyond their control, to pay again to ensure they are well fed and healthy?
That is a difficult question to which there are no simple answers and the simplest of all – more money to perpetuate what hasn’t worked in the past and isn’t working now, – won’t work in the future.
That is merely treating the symptoms, not addressing the causes.
As we looked at these issues more carefully we unearthed the immense costs of this breakdown. We put the costs of educational underachievement at £18 billion per annum;27 the costs of family breakdown at over £20 billion per annum and rising,28 and the cost of crime—so often a product of these pathways to poverty—at some £60 billion per annum.29 Almost £100 billion, every year, spent on simply treating the symptoms of social breakdown because we never got to the causes.
These eye-watering figures were a result, at least in part, of the damaging culture I spoke about before. A culture of short-termism had set in which was more focussed on chasing headlines than on changing lives. So, instead of investing in fundamental changes to the system—changes which may have taken a number of years to bear fruit—governments resorted to reactive but eye-catching tweaks around the edges.
These tweaks were expensive and often ineffective, but because they were funded by debt it was possible to push the burden of the cost of them further down the line, onto the next generation.
A prime example of this is the system of tax credits introduced by the previous Government, ostensibly with the goal of making work pay. More often than not these tax credits made things more confusing for claimants, and they created perverse incentives which encouraged work at just sixteen hours—no more and no less.30 But they played another role as well. Because there was a child element, paid in and out of work, tax credits became a useful tool for tweaking child poverty rates. Add a few more pounds to tax credits at the annual budget and you could triumphantly announce that you had pulled thousands of children out of poverty, as incomes would suddenly jump just above the poverty line. But had this changed anyone’s life? Had it made it any more likely that these children would go on to succeed in school, hold down a job, or form a stable and loving relationship?
In the case of a family troubled by addiction you may only have made things worse, with more money simply fuelling the family’s addiction problems. I know of too many households with addiction that get enough money, but the money only makes the situation worse because it drives them deeper into their problem and the children have to make do with even less. Because you haven’t made a permanent change in those parents’ lives, you’ll find that before long they will have cycled back below the poverty line, and you will be back where you started. Even more subtly, this policy had a longer-term effect, creating what a friend of mine, Frank Field, from the Labour Party, referred to as the “couple penalty.”31 This is where you earn more through benefits if you live apart than if you live together as a family. In essence, government money, far from being ambivalent, has actually ended up incentivising families to break up, with all the attendant consequences for children that I have already mentioned.
Perhaps worse, it has also created an intention to criminal behaviour. Families who— realising they would be better off apart—declare themselves as apart, even if they are together. This is a criminal act and they do that for a while until they realise just how serious that is and they either change their declaration, or they do actually break apart. It can’t be right that a system like ours drives people to that kind of behaviour. . .
Welfare that was designed with the good intention of helping people, usually but not always women, out of abusive relationships, can have the perverse result of incentivising solo parenting.
This isn’t an argument for no welfare.
But the right to receive help must come with the responsibility for people, if necessary with support and time, to do what they can for themselves and their children.