Despite recent revelations, and although I certainly don’t agree with him about every issue, Johann Hari writes eloquently and with feeling about issues such as homophobia and poverty. This is one article (from 2008) which stuck in my mind, particularly its observations about recent improvements in the lives of some poorer families.
But is it true that this approach has inexplicably stopped working? Since 1997, the poorest families have been given, on average, £4,200 more in top-up benefits per year. I can take you to the Ocean Estate here in east London and introduce you to children who used to sleep on a mattress in the kitchen but now have a bedroom of their own. You could talk to mums who can afford to give their kids birthday parties and take them on holiday for the first time. To them, “the central state shifting money around” hasn’t dealt with “the symptoms” of poverty; it has ended their poverty.
Over on Left Foot Forward, Shamik Das reports on the closure of 31 Sure Start centres since the election. These closures go against promises made by David Cameron to protect the programme, and reassurances (made back in March during Prime Minister’s Questions) that the funding was protected and centres would not have to close. These cuts are having the greatest impact in poor areas such as Tower Hamlets and Hackney.
The reason for the closures is that, contrary to Cameron’s protestations, Sure Start funding is not protected. Shortly after the coalition came to power, the budget for the centres was amalgamated into a new “early intervention grant”, which also includes funding for programmes related to teenage pregnancy, mental health and youth crime. These programmes received nearly £2.8bn in 2010-2011 but, this year, they will receive £2.2bn – a real-terms cut of 22.4 per cent.
In the New Statesman George Eaton concludes:
For a government that is ostensibly committed to social mobility to refuse to protect Sure Start is remarkable. Policymakers have long looked to schools and universities to narrow class differences but neuroscientists have since shown that the early years, when brain development is at its most rapid, offer the best chance to improve the life chances of the poorest.
Scandinavian countries, which have invested heavily in children’s services for decades, now enjoy the highest rates of social mobility in the world. Tony Blair’s decision to launch Sure Start in 1998 was an enlightened attempt to emulate that success. The current Prime Minister must explain, for the first time, why the coalition government is destroying this legacy.
I realize that Labour didn’t always keep its promises either, and that the Labour Government only helped slow down, rather than reverse, income inequality. But it did manage to reduce the number of children living in poverty. Pace Melanie Phillips, I don’t think all who oppose the left are ‘evil right-wingers who must be destroyed’, and I realize the Government has come to power at a difficult time, but I hope it will try to ensure that this positive trend isn’t reversed.