Leading Article: The Government is right to target the poverty of expectation

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The Independent Culture
THE REPORT on poverty released by the Government yesterday is perilously full of grand rhetoric. The claim that the proposals in Tackling Poverty and Social Exclusion represent the most radical set of changes introduced since the Beveridge Report laid the foundations for the modern welfare state 50 years ago is a bold one. Soundbites are, however, not always the enemy of substance. It is right that the Government's claims of improvements should be analysed and criticised. Equally, the focus on long-term improvements - and on measurable indicators of change - should be welcomed.

The arguments in past years over the differences between "absolute poverty" and "relative poverty" have often served to muddy the issues. But there is no doubt that the widespread sense of exclusion is a key element of poverty in modern Britain. The effects of the self-reinforcing poverty spiral can clearly be seen.

The report confronts the problems directly. By taking 1979 as its baseline - the year in which Margaret Thatcher came to power - the Government clearly seeks to score party political points against the Tories. But by highlighting the fact that one in five working-age households has no one in work, the report also confronts an enormous problem on the Government's own doorstep. This is a story of challenge; it is not (yet) a story of success.

Already the paradoxes are clear. Unemployment remains one of the sores of our time. And yet it has been calculated that nobody is more than half an hour's commuting journey from a job. Thus the issue is not just about unemployment, but also about motivation and flexibility.

Many poverty campaigners are unhappy that the Government emphasises non-financial aspects of poverty, thus - in its view - distracting from the key issue of simply delivering more cash. Stumping up more cash in the form of benefits would help to solve some urgent problems for individual families - how to afford clothes for the children, and enough food to last the week. But the distribution of more benefits does not in itself solve the problems of poverty - a point that is easier for a Labour government than a Conservative government to make. Aspirations are as important as the benefits themselves; the Government must provide the opportunities for those aspirations to be realised.

The poverty of expectation - where a large number of people simply take it for granted that there is no point in harbouring personal ambition, because it is bound to be thwarted - has blighted British society. If the Government can change even a part of this self-defeating mentality, it will have achieved a remarkable victory.

It is easy to mock the Government's declaration that it is "wrong and economically inefficient to waste the talents of even one single person" as an empty soundbite. But if that thought translates into effective policies that result in people who previously felt excluded from the world of work finding that they can earn a living for themselves and their families, the rhetoric will have been vindicated.

In a previous era, socialists thought that the solution to poverty was simple - redistribute the wealth from those who have too much to those who don't have enough, and there won't be any more poor people. New Labour is right to have realised that lack of money is only one form of poverty.

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