It isn’t just child poverty that limits social mobility; inequality does too

The side of social mobility that no politician will talk about: making rich-but-dim children downwardly mobile.

The side of social mobility that no politician will talk about: making rich-but-dim children downwardly mobile

The government will fail to meet its child poverty reduction targets by 2020, according to a new report from Alan Milburn’s social mobility and child poverty commission.

According to the report, “absolute child poverty increased by 300,000 between 2010-11 and 2012-13” and “independent experts expect child poverty to increase significantly over the next few years”.

This mirrors earlier findings by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), which forecast last year that coalition cuts and employment trends would mean that, by 2020, a quarter of all children (3.4 million) will be living in poverty, reversing reductions in child poverty that took place under Labour between 2000 and 2010.

This is incredibly damning. No one in our society ought to live in poverty, but it is particularly callous to inflict it on people – children – who play no part in the employment choices of their parents.

New Labour has been criticised for many things, but its record on child poverty was an impressive one.

Both absolute and relative income poverty fell significantly among children and pensioners under New Labour. This was not simply the result of a booming economy, but was a consequence of spending decisions taken by successive Labour governments. Tony Blair promised to end child poverty within a generation and Gordon Brown pledged ‘to end pensioner poverty in our country’.

These goals were reflected in where government money was spent.

Between 1997-98 and 2010-11, there was an £18 billion annual increase in spending on benefits for families with children and an £11 billion annual increase on benefits for pensioners by 2010-11. As the IFS points out, “…child and pensioner poverty would either have stayed the same or risen…had there not been these big spending increases”.

Due to spending decisions taken by the current government, these impressive gains are now being trashed. That isn’t the opinion of soft-centered charities or left-wing activists, this is the verdict of the government’s social mobility ‘tsar’ Alan Milburn as well as the ultra-orthodox IFS.

Today’s report includes 12 recommendations for the government to adopt so as to increase social mobility over the next decade. One reason the report is so damning is that child poverty, as well as being a moral scandal, has an egregious effect on social mobility.

The reason for this should be obvious: poor children are usually deprived of the things which make school life a little easier, such as books and a place at home to study – not to mention private tutoring. Doors which may easily open for the rest of us are always bolted more tightly when there is a lack of money at home.

So what should we take from the report then? That child poverty is bad? Sure. That it damages social mobility? Definitely.

But there is surely another issue at play here. It isn’t just child poverty that restricts social mobility; inequality does too. As the American author Christopher Hayes puts it in his excellent book The Twilight of the Elites, “over time, a society will grow both more unequal and less mobile as those who ascend its heights create means of preserving and defending their privilege and find ways to pass it on across generations”.

This raises a much bigger problem with the social mobility agenda: the inequality it produces ultimately subverts the mechanisms of mobility. No one in the political establishment today believes in equality of outcome and everyone believes in equality of opportunity; yet genuine equality of opportunity (or meritocracy as it is sometimes known) is undermined by the unequal society that meritocrats revere.

The more unequal a society is the worse social mobility tends to be (Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland have much better levels of social mobility than Britain and the US) for the simple reason that the advantages of the parents almost always become the advantages of the children.

We can take two things from this: 1) Key to ‘unlocking’ social mobility is less inequality of outcome; 2) we need to start talking about making posh-but-dim children downwardly mobile.

Ed Miliband has touched briefly on the first issue but, like every other politician, will steer clear of the second as if it were a bad smell.

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