The poor and the illiterate we will always have with us

`Those in the lower percentiles in the IQ range cannot function in a modern society'
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The Independent Culture
SO TONY Blair wants the whole country to be happy and good, housed and literate, as soon as possible - an admirable ambition. Last week he told those attending the 30th anniversary of the Charity for the Homeless, Centrepoint, that it was Britain's "shame" to have 1,600 people sleeping rough. It is. He pledged pounds 200m to put an end to it. That's pounds 125,000 a head. If that sum was handed out in cash to every person sleeping rough, say this Christmas Eve, I doubt you'd see many on the streets by the Millennium.

But it won't be like that. Good Lord, they might squander it. The pounds 200m will filter down from the top, from Treasury to the Social Exclusion Unit to the various charities, wrapped around with dictats and punitive ifs and buts, and will pay a whole lot of salaries on the way.

Tony Blair wants to end the divide between the haves and the have nots and so he should. But it is a stubborn problem. Even Jesus gave up: "For the poor always ye have with you" (St. John, 12-8). We politely gave up calling them "the poor" some decades back, and spoke about the "underprivileged", then the "underclass". Now, they're the "socially excluded" - which neatly puts the blame back on us for doing the excluding - but it is the same thing.

When Tony Blair says "the most important divide will not be between the haves and the have-nots but between the connected and the unconnected, those confident in cyberspace and those for whom it might as well be outer space," he is right. But I doubt that more than 50 per cent of the population will achieve sufficient computer literacy to be trusted by an employer to earn their living, and his, in front of a screen.

The point is that those people in the lower percentiles in the IQ range - with "mental health problems" as the charities tactfully describe it - cannot function in a complex modern society, and as society becomes more complex the percentage of those unable to cope creeps up. Getting a ticket on the Underground was once a simple matter: you told a human being where you wanted to go; you gave them money: they gave you a ticket. Now you have to press buttons in a complicated way. It seems simpler just to stand around enjoying the blasts of hot air that gush out when a train passes, and wait for the soup kitchen to come along.

The Government, in its egalitarian passion, is determined that all are born equal in "social competence" and all should be pulling their weight. ("Intelligence" is now such a no-no word that "social competence" is probably a better and safer term to use, for fear of uproar).

IQ tests were discredited back in the Sixties for their social divisiveness, after they had served their purpose in the Second World War to crudely but effectively divide millions of conscripts into categories, so you ended up either in the Diggers, at one end of the scale, or in the Education Corps at the other. A "normal" IQ - that is to say where most people cluster - was 100: 112 (from any social class) was reckoned to get you to grammar school: 120 to University.

There is a positive correlation between high IQs and upward social mobility, better exam results, and a high earning capacity: low IQs are associated with alcoholism, homelessness, and petty thievery. A team of psychologists, recently, and daringly, conducted IQ tests on those who were spending the night in a police station found the majority had scores of under 70. At this level of intelligence you don't understand concepts like "guilty" or "not-guilty". The lawyer has to dig you in the ribs and say "did you do what they say you did?" and if you have to been able to follow the proceedings at all you simply say yes or no.

What does this show? Simply that good or bad, right or wrong - at some levels - doesn't apply. Some people just have to be looked after, no matter what people like Louise Casey (the Tsarina of the Government's Rough Sleepers Unit), may think. She it was who recently complained that the homeless charities, with their hand-outs and soup kitchens, made matters worse.

It is extremely irritating that some people don't pull their weight, but not all have weight to pull. Those who used to totter round our mental asylums, safe, warm and fed, now fill our prisons and our doorways. The former we forget: the latter embarrass us.

As for the 20 per cent of the population who, according to Mr Blair, now leave our schools functionally illiterate, it may be shocking but it is not surprising. Stories come from TV and film, not books. Paying young adult illiterates to learn to read and write, as Mr Blair suggested, would probably work very well. But the sense of inadequacy and shame that used to accompany illiteracy is not, I imagine, as terrible as once it was. The illiterates may always be with us.