Poverty's the problem, work is the solution

There was a time when the shop steward at the local factory would also be a school governor and knew where his teenagers went at night
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Would Tony Blair have made yesterday's Southwark speech before the general election? Would he have dared to devote a speech at all entirely to the "forgotten" poor in a campaign constrained by being fought on the battleground of Middle England? The answer isn't quite as simple as it looks. It's true that the speech decisively exploded the myth - and hopes, perhaps, of some on the right - that his assault on the dependency culture is motivated by an urge to punish the workless. But his message was directed to Middle England itself, as well as to the poor. For a central part of it was to try to make the prosperous majority see why it is not in their interests to try to exclude a large minority from the opportunities they have as a matter of course.

In particular, Blair was trying to teach the lesson that where the Sixties was the age of the state, the Eighties of the individual, the millennium ushers in the age of the community. In the Sixties and Seventies, some of those very estates where the crack dealers now rule, where half the families are fatherless and nearly every household depends on benefits, were vital communities with their own developed version of civic solidarity. This was a world, now only half remembered among the smashed windows, graffiti-splattered walls, and lifts stinking of urine; one where the shop steward at the local factory would also be a primary school governor, stood for election to the local council, entered his geraniums in the local flower show, played in the pub darts team, and expected to know where his teenage children went at night. To recall this isn't mere nostalgia - that world has gone for ever, along with the jobs on which it depended. It is rather to point how those communities were centred on the world of work. The assumption that your children, particularly the males, would at the very least be able to follow you into a job at the same, or a similar plant, was near total. The micro-society was often an extension of the workplace; the networks of extended family and factory floor criss-crossed from street to street.

Two points follow from this. First that work and the cohesion of a community are closely related. This view wasn't consistently held by all poverty campaigners in the Eighties, who tended to believe that distribution of income whether through work or by other means, including benefits, was a vastly more critical determinant of the health of a community, perhaps even whether there was a community at all. Only more recently have most reverted to the view that in work lies self-esteem, collective as well as individual, with resulting benefits that extend well beyond the merely economic.

The other point is a sharper, harsher lesson: that it is no good staying on benefit until the job you're qualified for, or want, or used to have, turns up. Gordon Brown's budget next month will be shot through with the belief, first that the longer a person is unemployed, the less likely he is to be employable, and second that a job behind the counter at McDonald's or at the local car wash puts him or her on the first rung of a ladder that leads back to a permanent and improving position in the labour market. This is why Blair yesterday ruled out the option for those on the programme - though not, as Polly Toynbee pointed out here yesterday, for single mothers - of taking the benefit and refusing work.

Those who wring their hands and say - wrongly - that these are punitive solutions borrowed crudely from the US forget, perhaps because they are so used to it, what a bold step is the windfall tax on the utilities in ensuring that there is at least pounds 3bn to provide this work, in large part through rebates to employers prepared to take on the young. It was precisely the absence of a similar public spending commitment that so frustrated Robert Reich, President Clinton's disillusioned Labor Secretary.

No, you can't be 100 per cent sure that it will succeed. Yes, it's a one-off commitment. But if it does start to reduce worklessness among the young and the long-term unemployed, then the savings it generates will creates a momentum of its own.

In Blair's warning yesterday that this isn't a free ride, that there will be "hard choices" ahead, there is surely just a hint that the most prosperous in society may in time be asked to make, in their own interests as much for reasons of altruism, limited sacrifices of to keep that momentum going. Yesterday Blair boldly sought to harness the goodwill both of companies and - in a new move - individual volunteers to act as "mentors" to young school-leavers. His optimism that the call be heeded is far from baseless. There's every chance that many businessmen and volunteers won't want to be left out of the excitement of a New Deal generated by a new leader with a huge mandate and a clear sense of purpose.

And, beyond that, who else has been offering solutions? The old left, with a frame of reference shaped by its own base in the mines and docks and manufacturing plants that have vanished in the post-Fordist age, didn't. The unions themselves, literally dependent on their focus on those in work rather than those without it, didn't. The Tories, prepared for the most part to ignore the workless minority as the price of a competitive society, while kidding themselves that unemployment had nothing to do with crime, didn't.

In the US more and more of the underclass are simply behind bars - two per cent of the population in jail compared with 0.3 per cent here. And of course that, in the hands of a Michael Howard or a Peter Lilley, could be a sort of answer here; a lot flows from the lie that crime and drug use and vandalism has nothing do with unemployment, including the proposition that the only way to deal with the aggravating tendency of the workless to drift threateningly from their world into that of the prosperous to mug, or sell drugs, or burgle, is to lock more and more of them up after it happens, rather than to spend even a fraction of the public money that costs by trying to prevent them drifting into crime in the first place. And if not that, at least to isolate them on the wrong side of the tracks in, as Blair put it yesterday, the housing estates "cut off by failing bus services where only a third of homes have a phone", with failing schools and a hugely disproportionate share of crime. Where the population subsists on drip fed benefits and zero aspirations to match.

Not since he was shadow Home Secretary has Blair so sharply expressed his guiding principle that there is a case "not just in the moral terms but in enlightened self-interest" to bring the dispossessed underclass back into the mainstream. An excluding society builds an electric fence between itself and its losers; an inclusive society, the one held out yesterday in the vision of a young Prime Minister full of the almost limitless hope that is a necessary condition of change, offers them the chance to be winners instead.