A full wallet doesn't mean you have a soft head

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The Independent Culture
FOR SOME reason two beggars, Bill and Ben, have taken up residence on my high street. We've always had Big Issue sellers, but these two aren't doing anything. Nor are they alcoholics, as far as I can tell. They have all their limbs and they don't shout or mutter, or execute spectacular slumps on to the roadway. Bill is 30-ish and plump, with a blond pigtail, and Ben is in his early twenties, with his hair in short dreadlocks and his face set in a pleasant smile. And all morning long they sit in their allotted doorways and matter-of-factly request change or - if they spot a smoker - cigarettes. It's almost as though they were stallholders, selling the exercising of charitable impulses to passers-by.

I rather resent them. The least one of them could do, if they really want my cash, is to contract some disfiguring illness. And, without going all Jack Straw about it, I can't see what they're doing there. Unemployment in the area is pretty low, and there are cards in lots of the shop windows looking for labour.

It could be that each of them is indeed suffering from some hidden affliction which forces them to beg, but my strong feeling is that they ought to be working. So if I've got any money to spare, then Bill and Ben are not getting it. Far better to give it to the Barnardos people, who - in their green tabards - have been laying mass siege to this area during the last three weeks.

Bill and Ben would go mad over Gordon Brown. Yesterday the Chancellor strolled happily down the sunlit high street of the British economy, openly celebrating the achievement of the golden scenario: low inflation plus steady growth. As he did so, every school, hospital, local authority, public sector trade union leader and spending minister mentally declared this autumn to be one long flag day for their own good cause.

Fine. As the Prime Minister said to the TUC on Tuesday, everybody should hold out their hands to the Chancellor; it's only natural. A soft answer turneth away wrath; but it still leaves the really big question intact. If we are heading for a period of sustained growth and high revenues, how should the benefits of this growth best be distributed?

Should we go on a public spending spree? Pig out on lower personal taxation? Pay off what remains of the national debt? Or take the opportunity to invest in big, one-off improvements to the national infrastructure?

As it happens, the Chancellor's speech coincides with one of those cyclical debates that we have in Britain about poverty. Film crews and investigative journalists are jamming into the sink estates and failing schools of the nation, and sending us back terrible reports about how the excluded are getting on. Three weeks ago, for example, the BBC screened The Eyes of a Child, which took a series of terrible cases of deprivation, and then made the claim that "these children speak for five million others". The implication of the film was that some kind of massive redistribution was required, to bring those currently below the poverty line above it. Again, Mr Blair has promised that Labour will indeed lift many children above that line.

It was with a shock that I realised that, technically, I had lived on the poverty line when I was a kid. Or maybe even below. My mother used to sell old clothes from a pram to supplement the meagre wages my dad earned from his full-time occupation as a political activist. I can recall that it wasn't much fun getting less pocket money than almost all my classmates, and I remember one of them reporting to his friends, after visiting us, that the Aaronovitches all sat "on orange boxes".

A bit extra would have helped, but there was never much danger of my family's being trapped in a cycle of blighted lives and low expectations. And that's because poverty is about far more than money. Although the definition of poverty is for a family to be living on less than half of average earnings, many of the children in The Eyes of a Child could have been in families earning more, and it would have made no difference. There were no dads, except criminal ones, and the mothers were sometimes feckless drug addicts whom you wouldn't have left in charge of a whippet, let alone 12 kids. Giving more money directly to the parents of these children would be simply to line the pockets of pushers, publicans and betting shops in Bradford and Leicester. I cannot have been the only one whose treacherous alter ego whispered "eugenics" into their mind's ear. Are the poor like that because they're poor? Or are they poor because they're like that?

I raise this because it's a reminder of the need to be clear about what public spending can do. Money targeted at schemes that aim to break the cycle of deprivation should be more of a priority than merely raising benefits, or ladling material support on to families that do not know how to cope.

It is fiendishly expensive to offer first-class remedial education or counselling to traumatised children who have themselves been victims of violence or neglect. Yet these schemes do work. They change attitudes. They complement measures such as the improvement of literacy and numeracy in primary schools, and Sure Start. And, at the moment, they are terribly short of ready dosh.

In the same way, there are highly specific programmes of public works that could be undertaken as a consequence of the new boom. As a Londoner, I may be accused of parochialism, but our underground train system has suffered enormously from being the earliest, and also one of the most complex, in the world. I have no great ideological drum to beat for any of the several ways in which the London Underground might be run or financed. But it is blindingly obvious now that a significant public contribution to the overhaul and modernisation of our capital's transport system is going to be needed. So let's do it.

But, to take another agenda, I wouldn't, were I the Welsh Assembly, spend a penny more on agricultural subsidies or compensation to farmers who behave irrationally. Unless we take the conscious decision that we want theme-park farming in this country - as a sort of adjunct to the tourist industry - then money spent in this way will simply add to the problems of agriculture.

Pay farmers to kill calves? What kind of madness is that? Nor would I just hand out large increases to everyone in the public sector. They don't all, as is often claimed, do a "fantastic job".

If we are indeed doing well, we should use the extra resources released to break up and interrupt malign cycles and to encourage virtuous ones. This would be an opportunity, for instance, to begin to run down the numbers of export licences granted to the arms industry, and to encourage it to diversify. We could increase aid to those countries identified by Clare Short as running clear anti-poverty development strategies. We might even decide to reduce our own debt further, leaving more money available in the long term for schools and hospitals.

Having a full wallet doesn't necessarily mean having a soft head. As I told Bill yesterday.