Alan Johnson: Instead of blaming poor, we must eradicate poverty

AS politicians debate what needs to be done to tackle poverty, there is a tendency to focus on what might work in the future rather than refining and resourcing what has worked in the past.

Alan Johnson delivered a lecture on poverty.
Alan Johnson delivered a lecture on poverty.

We look for new solutions while those that are tried and tested rust in a scrap yard of previous initiatives condemned because they cannot be described as fresh thinking or because, in the language of political tribalism, they weren’t invented here.

The National Minimum Wage is one of them – a policy championed by Keir Hardie as a founding principle of the Labour Party but which was opposed by the TUC in the 70s and the Conservative Party in the 80s and 90s.

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Its introduction via the Low Pay Commission was necessarily careful and gradual but it’s now a fundamental bedrock of the fight against poverty. It is, in effect, part of the modern welfare state, which demonstrated its importance when the financial crisis followed the Lehman Brothers collapse.

When the crash of 2008 happened the welfare system created by Clement Attlee, and supplemented by subsequent governments, came into its own. Although more GDP vanished than in any previous post-war slump, inequality didn’t immediately increase. Indeed, for a brief period it actually fell: far fewer jobs were lost and not as many evictions occurred than in the more modest dip of the 1990s. Crime, which had increased dramatically in previous recessions, carried on falling.

That’s largely because the automatic stabilisers kicked in, maintaining spending power in recession-lashed communities. But there was an important addition. As well as payment for the temporarily unemployed and Child Benefit, there was now the tax credit system to top up shrinking pay and bespoke tweaks to income support to help jobless families to pay the mortgage.

The government of Gordon Brown, and for a short period the coalition of David Cameron, notched up benefits in line with inflation, the formula accepted by governments of all political persuasions for as long as anybody could remember.

The response to this demonstrable success of a system built and improved by successive governments was to begin to dismantle it. Prosperous politicians disgracefully traduced the poor as people living in households where the blinds stayed down in the early morning while their neighbours went off to work.

Television programmes like Benefits Street began to portray the welfare state not as a means of overcoming the problems caused by the banks but as a problem in itself.

As always, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation is a haven of good sense and muscular practicality. They published their long-term plan to eradicate poverty last September and its five points are fully grounded in reality.

Point one is to boost incomes and reduce costs by investing in our infrastructure. They give the example of building 80,000 genuinely affordable homes to rent and buy in England each year.

Point two is to deliver an effective benefits system which reverses cuts to the work allowance under Universal Credit, setting it at a level that provides a decent safety net.

Point three is to improve education standards and raise skills – closing the attainment gap and giving five million adults who lack basic reading, writing and numeracy skills the training they need.

Point four is to strengthen families and communities by building a family hub in every area so parents and families can access parenting support. Perhaps we should call them Sure Start Centres.

Point five is to promote long-term and inclusive growth through genuine devolution – giving mayors and council leaders the powers, incentives and budgets to generate growth that reaches everyone in their boroughs.

The aim of the plan is to give every child who started school last September a chance to grow up in a more prosperous and poverty-free UK by 2030. A country where no-one is destitute, and no-one lives in poverty for more than two years.

We have long passed the point where even the concept of health inequalities was politically contentious. Indeed, Theresa May chose to place tackling them at the centre of her first utterances as our Prime Minister when she pledged to fight against “the burning injustice that if you’re poor you will die an average nine years earlier than others”.

These are dangerous and uncertain times for everyone but for the poorest in our society, as always, the difficulties and dangers are magnified. I am reminded of the words of the historian RH Tawney who said: “The goodness we have reached is a house built on piles, driven into the black slime and always slipping down into it unless we are building night and day.”

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has never stopped building out of the slime. It’s time for the rest of us to lend a hand.

Alan Johnson is a former Cabinet minister who was Labour MP for Hull West until stepping down at the election. He delivered the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s annual poverty lecture. This is an edited version.