Frank Young: Today’s Commons debates, why measuring relative poverty doesn’t work – and what Ministers should do instead

18 Jan

Frank Young is political director at the Centre for Social Justice

Today’s Opposition Day debates in the Commons on Universal Credit and free school meals would commit the Government to spending an additional £9 billion a year on Universal Credit: whatever the welfare plan, its costs are always huge.

The Government should be given credit for stepping in quickly at a time of crisis. It acted fast to provide an uplift for recipients of Universal Credit. Nonetheless, the debates will bring into painful focus the lack of a coherent approach to tackling poverty.

The absence of such a strategy has left ministers haplessly exposed, and gifted their opponents a moral high ground. A government in want of a thought-through approach to poverty is also a government that will find itself constantly accused of being uncaring – and vulnerable to excitable campaigns to expose this supposed malice.

It is always tempting to try and answer the question ‘how many people are poor’ by drawing a line in the sand. Some sophisticated attempts have been made to identify much deeper poverty, isolating groups of people from the ebbs and flows of average wealth. This absolutist approach takes us much closer to what most people would recognise as ‘poverty’.

At any rate, the David Cameron-era 2016 Work and Welfare Act is the closest the Government comes to having an official poverty measure. This Act compels the Government to publish a set of child poverty statistics based on a relative measure of 60 per cent of median incomes, and a more severe absolute measure of poverty based on the same measure from 2011 and adjusted for inflation. That 60 per cent figure is close to a religious creed among poverty campaigners. In consequence, they are able to say that each year roughly one in five of us are living in poverty.

There a plenty of voices from poverty charities and experts encouraging a different approach, arguing for a different poverty measure – or measuring relative poverty in a more detailed way.

Some charities call for the introduction of a minimum income measure, whereby an income of almost £37,000 for a family of four would be needed to avoid being considered poor. Others attempt to find a more sophisticated way of measuring the number of people who fall below a line – and those who persistently fall a long way below it.

Increasingly, poverty campaigners are calling absolute poverty “destitution”, as the word “poverty” itself becomes devalued. The Government itself seems as perplexed as everyone else, having published “experimental” poverty statistics a little more than a year ago, which are still based on a measure of poverty relative to average incomes.

But the reduction of poverty to a single, relative number distracts attention from a serious long-term approach by reducing the misery of poverty to a simple transactional approach to calm Twitter for a day. This is the realpolitik of poverty measurement. And at its worst, this “line-ist” approach leads to ministers focusing their efforts on moving people above an imagined line so they are no longer ‘poor’ – which does nothing to solve persistent problems.

Though low income is a useful proxy measure, it does not tell the full story of an individual’s situation. Often, living on a very low income is a symptom of deeper difficulties. There are five million illiterate adults in the UK, so the long-term answer to poverty for them is help to read and write. This kind of approach tackles the root causes of poverty, not just the symptoms.

It is more than four years since David Cameron came within a matter of days of announcing a Life Chances Strategy based on the lived reality of poverty and a route map out of it. Mandarins might want to go further back to find answers in a framework of social justice measures pioneered in the early days of the Coalition Government. These focused the government on outcomes that reduced family breakdown and dysfunction, improved recovery from addiction, provided help into work, and ensured that our education system helps children growing up in poor households.

There is plenty of support on the backbenches for an ambitious approach – such as the MPs who attend the Social Justice Caucus of Conservative MPs each week. The Social Justice Outcomes Framework was put together to give governments the right targets to tackle poverty. They are still available through a simple Google search, and should be updated and re-instated as the focus of a long-term government poverty strategy. If the Prime Minster is looking for such a plan, he could do worse than dust off some of the old hits and set to work with a grand plan to tackle the root causes of poverty.

Frank Young: We’re sleepwalking into a crisis if we don’t vaccinate against poverty, too

9 Dec

Frank Young is Political Director at the Centre for Social Justice.

It wasn’t all that long ago that Conservative Prime Ministers were waging “an all-out assault on poverty”, or standing on the steps of Downing Street making solemn promises to make “social reform” the top priority for government.

These were Conservative Prime Ministers. This wasn’t just rhetorical flourish – the sort of thing a politician might say to give the impression of being a caring sort of person there was real focus on tackling poverty in the depths of Whitehall. It is little known outside of the civil service, but had David Cameron stayed in office for one week more in 2016, he would have announced his ‘life chances strategy’ – a plan to tackle poverty which was on the grid, ready to be rolled out. Turn back the clock to the start of a decade, and the Coalition Government introduced a framework for tackling persistent poverty. It’s still there if you do a Google search.

Recent polling conducted by Survation on behalf of the Centre for Social Justice unmasks the true scale of the poverty precipice that we’re looking over as 2020 comes to an end. This work, quizzing over a thousand households on the lowest incomes found that more than one in three are afraid of losing their job in coming months; nearly as many have been unable to pay a bill, one in five are going hungry and one in six fear being made homeless. A quarter of these families have less than £350 saved up when crisis hits. This is the sort of analysis that should get ministers scrambling for a proper plan to tackle poverty.

Support for the Conservative Party from low income voters appears to be ebbing away. Labour now enjoys twice as much support among this group than the Conservative Party. In 2019 the Labour still had a lead, but the gap was much smaller. The low-income households we polled make up one in six voters, more than enough to swing the seats that decide elections.

Only three in ten low income voters think the Conservative Party is concerned about supporting people on low incomes, against over a half who said the same thing about the Labour Party. In crude political terms, the path to victory in 2024 requires a poverty plan. There’s no realistic chance of ‘levelling up’ if we don’t address the social impact of disadvantage alongside economic revival. If we can have an ‘industrial strategy’ – then we can surely have a social equivalent too.

The true reality of poverty will be hard to escape as we recover from the Covid-19 epidemic and a plan of action is needed now more than at any point in recent history. Last week, we discovered that Government mandarins were circulating secret Armageddon documents, detailing the true impact of lockdown and coronavirus related restrictions on British business.

It shouldn’t surprise us that such a document exists, or the detail into which it delves. It is the job of government and the role of Parliament to extract it from ministers for full public scrutiny. What should surprise us is that there is no social equivalent. Where is the detailed analysis of the social impact of closing down the economy (and the answer is not in recent Government documents cribbed from the Office for National Statistics)?

It’s always easy to criticise and turn politics into Christmas panto. When it was needed, the Chancellor stepped in quickly with bags full of borrowed cash to prevent an unemployment catastrophe and extra cash for welfare claims. His furlough plans came with a Rishi Sunak logo but, once support is lifted, we will need to think about a long term solution to match the short term reaction. This means more than simply transferring money through welfare cheques.

A grand plan needs go back to the ‘root causes’ of poverty much loved of previous Conservative Prime Ministers. That means putting a focus on reducing family breakdown and dysfunction, recovery from addiction, ensuring unemployment doesn’t drift into long term worklessness and ensuring our education system helps children growing up in poor households escape poverty in adulthood.

There’s no reason why the Conservative Party can’t scoop up plenty of support in parts of the country where money is tight, and the need for the state to step in the greatest. Immunisation with a vaccine is only part of the job in 2021. The lesson of the last year is poorer communities are much more vulnerable to the next virus or health emergency. If we can plan for the economy to take off when the virus is behind us, we should plan to reduce poverty too. There is nothing socially just about a bankrupt country, but it takes more than a roaring economy to really push down on people living in miserable conditions.

Frank Young: Why we need to get rid of the term ‘BAME’

18 Nov

Frank Young is Political Director at the Centre for Social Justice

A generation ago, virtually all ethnic minority groups in the UK were more disadvantaged than the White British population, by almost any measure. Today, disadvantage is no longer black and white.

Too often, we have viewed ethnic minorities through lumping everyone who is non-white into a crude “BAME” category, grouping their experiences as if there are no meaningful differences between them. It is time to get rid of this useless “BAME vs. White” approach and dig a little deeper into the facts.

Outcomes for virtually all ethnic minority groups have been on a positive trajectory over the last few decades. Many ethnic minority groups are now performing better in education and the labour market than the White British group.

Before we tipped our economy upside down, official earnings data showed that young people from Black African and Bangladeshi backgrounds no longer had lower earnings than their White British counterparts. This is most likely because African and Bangladeshi children are outperforming the national average in bagging good GCSE grades.

When it comes to the home life that sets the template for adulthood, there are vast disparities in family structures across ethnic groups. Only 10 per cent of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi households are headed up by a single parent; for Caribbean households with children the figure is nearly half. We shouldn’t be surprised that children’s outcomes are so varied when the homes they return to each day are so different.

None of this is intended to suggest we take a pollyannaish approach to ethnicity – there are real problems we need to tackle. But if we want to take them on properly we need to dig a little deeper into what is going on between and within ethnic groups with very different backgrounds, cultural expectations and experiences of the world around them.

The gaps are not just between White Brits and ethnic minority groups. There are huge gaps within broad ethnic minority groups too. For instance, Indian people of working age in 2018 succeeded in closing the employment gap between themselves and the White British population, and now earn more than White British workers, on average. Meanwhile, Pakistani and Bangladeshi people have consistently had the highest unemployment rates – more than double that of the Indian population – and have some of the poorest earnings.

The differences between Black Caribbean and Black African individuals are also stark. Black African GCSE students achieve higher than average in school, whilst their Caribbean peers have some of the poorest attainment rates. Disadvantaged African students perform better, not worse, than more advantaged Caribbean students.

Simply reporting “Asian or “Black” outcomes is deeply unhelpful – let alone reporting “BAME” outcomes. You won’t hear that in the news too often, let alone reports from bureaucrats who love to lump people into groups.

It might be tempting to just blame this on “poverty” or some imagined “structural disadvantage” but the fact is some groups seem to beat the odds. Poorer Indian students (those eligible for free school meals) achieve just as highly as relatively wealthier White British students in their GCSEs. Similarly, disadvantaged Black African students achieve better GCSE results than their more advantaged Black Caribbean peers.

At the CSJ, we have always tackled the most difficult social issues head on. All the above statistics come from our newly published report, Facing the facts: ethnicity and disadvantage in Britain. We need to improve the way we understand ethnic differences by binning the nonsense term “BAME” and instead turn our attention to tackling poverty at its root causes, making sure we get those out of work into a job, preventing families from breaking apart and making education an escape route from a poorer future. The Prime Minister is tip-toeing into this area with a new commission but more ambitious action is needed.

There’s a lot to be really proud of in our country and in many ways we are a hugely successful multi-ethnic democracy. We don’t need a crude approach to ethnicity anymore than we need it in tackling poverty. The “Black Lives Matter” movement has been a catalyst for re-examining how ethnicity affects “life chances”, but it is being held back a lack of nuance.

Governments love to say they are led by the evidence, it’s time to look at the evidence on ethnicity in plotting a better future for families growing up in our poorest areas. The first step is get rid of the pointless phrase “BAME” and get a lot more interested in the lives of real people, which will show up in the data when you look carefully.

Frank Young: Educational Long Covid. Why the collapse of schooling over lockdown will haunt the poor for years to come.

3 Nov

Frank Young is Political Director at the Centre for Social Justice

If the Marcus Rashford affair has taught us anything, it is that the Government is in urgent need of a poverty strategy to plug the hole in thinking when emergency measures come in.

Until recently, being Education Secretary was the Cabinet job everyone wanted, and for good reason. Number crunchers at the Department for Work & Pensions worked out some years ago that, for a poor child, failing at school was the number one predictor of staying poor in adult life. It’s as simple as that.

Well before state schools were closed down last spring (with private schools moving almost entirely online), the so-called educational attainment gap persisted as an annual reminder of this particular pathway into future poverty. Disadvantaged pupils are particularly prone to low levels of literacy and numeracy – and this in turn leads to low pay, insecure jobs and unemployment.

If we really want to ‘build back better’ when the pandemic is in the rear view mirror, we will need to tackle educational inequalities of outcome, in much the same way that we need to build houses.

More than half a billion school days have been missed since March, with children from disadvantaged backgrounds having less contact with their teachers and less work marked than wealthier children. In the first month of lockdown, private school children were twice as likely to take part in daily online lessons as those in state school.

The full impact of school closures on children’s outcomes is not yet known, but the closures are likely to have worsened the attainment gap. The exam fiasco over the summer will have further disrupted education for children at a critical time in their studies. This is a form educational Long Covid that will have an impact on already disadvantaged lives for many years to come.

We seemed to have stopped talking about the ‘root causes’ of disadvantage as we chase our tail to lockdown, bail out and subsidise our way out of the pandemic. Any poverty strategy will need to take a long hard look at where the educational disadvantage starts – and that is in the home. Between the ages of four to 16, a typical British child will spend only 15 per cent of their time at school. Damian Hinds got this when he described family life as the last educational “taboo”.

Home environments marked by multiple transitions, disrupted attachment to a parent and frequent conflict increase the likelihood of children displaying externalising behaviour problems, leading to poor engagement and attainment at school.

The experience of lockdown has only increased made the situation worse. In response to the escalating education crisis, we spend £26 on catch-up schemes for every £1 we spend on reducing conflict within families. That’s an argument for increasing the £1 – not decreasing the £26 that is desperately needed.

Our nursery sector is teetering on the brink following an extended, enforced shutdown. It is too soon to tell how many will shut their doors, unable to make running a nursery work but as ever this will hit the poorest hardest. At just 3 years old, disadvantaged children are almost 1.5 years behind their more affluent peers in their early language development.

Once attainment gaps arise, they are hard to close. Children who attend high-quality settings for two to three years are almost eight months ahead of children who attend none. This is exactly where we need to focus a renewed push to tackle poverty and disadvantage.

Schools are receptacles of disadvantage – whether it is a dysfunctional home life or a terrible start in life. We can now predict longer term educational underperformance from the earliest days: when Frank Field looked at this issue he found more than half of children in the bottom 20 per cent of attainment in school at school will remain at the bottom when they take their GCSEs.

As Robert Halfon has said on this website, we need a poverty strategy. The money set aside for catch-up should be rolled into the next spending review to give schools a permanent pot for focused, back-to-basics tuition in literacy and numeracy.

Small is beautiful when it comes to catch up – and we can lock this into our efforts to rebuild from the pandemic. Teachers make the difference, and getting the best teachers into schools with disadvantaged catchments should be a big priority. High-quality teaching is particularly transformative for disadvantaged pupils. Over a school year, these pupils get 1.5 years’ worth of learning with high-quality teachers; they lose half a year’s learning when taught by poorly performing teachers.

Don’t overlook family support, hidden away in the Department for Work & Pensions. The Reducing Parental Conflict programme now has three years of evidence based interventions to stabilise family life. It is much an education issue as it is a poverty issue for the department doleing out welfare payments. We need action now to tackle children going without – but we also need a plan that tackles disadvantage early on.

Frank Young: What drug dealers really think about legalising drugs

22 Oct

Frank Young is a Political Director at the Centre for Social Justice.

Drugs legalisation is a cockroach policy that is almost impossible to kill. Even now, as the country tries to contain a pandemic, there are calls in the press from Left and Right to legalise cannabis: rather like the arguments over grammar schools, it is a debate that seemingly will never die.

Dealers themselves are dismissive of calls to legalise drugs – as we found out when we spoke to some about arguments put up by political types for and against legalisation.  Today, we publish an account of what they told us: A raw deal: drug-dealing discussed with lived experience.

Our ex-pushers told us, very clearly, that like any entrepreneur they would simply undercut the (heavily taxed) market in any newly legal drugs. One former dealer told us that if high street chemists started selling legal cannabis, they would “either match that price or do better than that price”.

The supply of “recreational” drugs is immune to lockdowns, as a recent study of drug supply found. Ordering recreational drugs is now as easy as ordering a pizza. This isn’t just an issue that is happening somewhere else. The chances are that there will be drugs whizzing around a street near you, impervious to class or any other sort of social stratification.

One ex-dealer told us about dealing Xanax, a common anti-anxiety drug, to university students: “a lot of these people that I was selling drugs to in university, I was just their doctor”.

We were told about, in their words, “middle-class” students, who didn’t think they were buying drugs because they were getting brand name PfizerXanax at a fraction of the price of a high street pharmacist. These are the sons and daughters of our “ethical” consumers of ‘Cali’ cocaine.

What our conversations really taught us is how our debate in this area is increasingly out of date: the political class will forever discuss laws they can tinker with, but what we need to really talk about is how we provide support to help guide people away from the dangerous temptations of criminal activity. Our ex-dealers were caught in a trap just as bad as any poverty trap.

When you speak to young men ‘trapped’ in a cycle of drug dealing and violent offending, the idea of parallel societies is a constant theme. Our conversations with ex-drug dealers shed a spotlight on career routes in gang life and the drug trade.

They were drawn in by the easy cash, which then hooked them into a lifestyle of small-time dealing. Tougher policing through newly announced Serious Violence Reduction Orders will help, giving the police the chance to step in when they can see drugs all around them, making dealing in the spotlight a much less attractive proposition. But good ol’ Tory tough-on-crime is not enough by itself.

The solution to these problems is not endless debate over regulation, but to get serious about engaging early and scaling up tried and tested programmes focused on young people heading for the clink.

Take Josh Babarinde, who was awarded the OBE recently. Josh set up Cracked It: he literally went door to door to encourage young people to join his social enterprise mending phone screens and supporting ex-offenders into work.

For those much further down the path, charities like Key4Life who work with offenders stuck in prison and through mentoring and education put them on a path tolegitimate employment. A year after release,14 per cent of those who went through the Key4Life programme have re-offended, compared to a national proven re-offending rate of 64 per cent. There are plenty of charities stepping in to do this work: what we could do with now is a national effort to scale up what they do, bottle it and do more.

If you want to kill supply, you have to kill demand, so get in early with young users – if you’re found with small quantities, you should be sent on a drug awareness course, like a speed awareness course, to learn about the damage you are doing.

This should be used as a funnel to scale up these charities – and pick out the young people heading to the clink,  or worse. Police Commissioners should be given a proper role to step in and deliver these programmes, and an innovation fund for commissioners should be set up, making them proper laboratories for fighting crime.

The next time someone tries to peddle legalisation to you, just say no – and ask them what they would do instead about the young men caught up in ‘the trap’, from tougher street policing to backing charities stepping in to change lives for good.