Deborah Orr: Our politicians need to recognise that not everyone wants to give their child a better life

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The Independent Online

God, what a wet David Cameron comes across as at times. Some of the content of his speech yesterday was such typically bourgeois-liberal projection that it made me wonder if perhaps I lived secretly somewhere to the right of Attila The Hun. "Everybody dreams of rising up in the world," Cameron believes, "and everybody dreams of giving their children a better life."

His rhetoric is the same as Brown's or Blair's or that of most politicians. It presumes that everyone is made of the same stuff as they are, which is – as we know – 100 per cent pure ambition. The trouble is that these assumptions are often exaggerated or sometimes downright wrong. Not everybody "dreams of rising up in the world". Indeed,many people have modest goals, and the people Cameron's speech yesterday was mainly about – benefit claimants – sometimes have no other goal than a fearful desire to cling on to their hand-out.

Not everyone "dreams of giving their child a better life" either. On the contrary, some parents consider a child's desire for a different sort of life to be an implicit criticism, a rejection of the values in the home. They don't want their children to make them feel inadequate, because they believe their child was put on this earth to validate them. That's why so many parents fail to take an interest in their child's progress at school. They hated education themselves, and believe it is right that their child should be the same as them.

I know that sounds terrible to the aspirational ear, and that people with these sorts of anti-ambitions sound to the thrusting majority like abusive fiends. Actually, they are mainly just ignorant and frightened, and are mainly abusing themselves. One of the basic things a chastened Blair eventually came to understand was that the socially excluded couldn't be rescued easily. They are sometimes "hard to reach", as he put it, precisely because they resist being reached. They cling to the familiar, however horrible it is, because change terrifies them.

If Cameron wants to "Make British Poverty History", as he yesterday claimed, he is going to have to ditch his belief that every human is hard-wired to be a go-get-'em capitalist, eager to find their dynamic place in a skills-based economy. The truth is that the reason why so many people have failed to find work during this long economic boom is because they don't in the least believe that they can take a low-paid job and work their way up, like a plucky young Oxbridge grad, and sometimes they are not wrong about themselves.

Cameron is eager, of course, to highlight Brown's failure to reduce by much the claimants' list. So he should be, as Brown appears to have no plans to do anything differently despite extremely disappointing results. Brown has already spent £60bn promoting welfare-to-work, only to find that even though two million jobs have been created since 1997, the number of people claiming benefits has declined very little, from 5.64 million to 5.4 million. Most worryingly, 1.25 million 16-24-year-olds are floating around doing nothing in particular, 20 per cent more than in 1997.

Pretty much all of Brown's ideas were borrowed from Bill Clinton's own welfare reforms in the US in the 1990s. All Brown failed to filch was the five-year time limit Clinton imposed, now viewed as an important omission by the right, Frank Field, and me. Critics of the five-year limit say that extreme poverty in the US has been forced underground, because people are cut loose after their time is up, whether they have support or not. It's hard to see how such a policy could fail to have some such consequences. Yet as time goes on it does become apparent that one hugely positive thing the Clinton reforms have achieved has been to make people think twice about having children they cannot support.

Anything that achieves this is worth looking at, because a parent who fails to understand that his or her child is their financial responsibility finds it easier to believe that other responsibilities are not theirs either.

The right of the Conservative Party has been baying for years for this one last piece of Clintonian reform to be championed by its leadership. In his speech, Cameron merely hinted at the possibility, by suggesting that proposals for welfare reform would be appropriating policies that have been proven to work from around the world.

In the meantime, Cameron prefers to emphasise a rather more dodgy point, first promulgated in a report co-authored by Field back in June, and now largely discredited. Field claimed that the tax credit system was so brutally weighted against two-parent families that a single mother working 16 hours a week, after tax credits, gets a weekly income of £487, while a two-parent family earning the minimum wage has to work 116 hours to get the same income.

It later transpired that this would only occur if the single mother was using child-care while the two-parent family wasn't, and if she were living in unusually expensive privately rented accommodation (strange, since they only breed to get council flats). Once childcare and housing costs were taken out, the two sets of figures were not much different (though they slightly favoured the single parent). The Tories were fond of quoting these figures until they were shown to be wrong. But they carry on with the same argument, that Britain has so many single parents because the tax credit system is so biased, simply because they like the idea that everything would be fine if only everyone was married.

Really though, the trouble with tax credits is that they are a supplement that is given to employers who offer poverty wages, through means-testing their workers. These hard-working families find this process so stressful that, in a Citizens Advice Bureau survey published this week, a quarter of those claiming the credits said that they would never claim again. All this is on top of the persistent problems with overpayment and claw-back that have dogged the system. It's an elaborate and punitive way of "making work pay".

Perhaps it is correct that the minimum wage needs to stay low in order to promote entrepreneurship and foster small businesses. But perhaps it is dumb that all companies, no matter how profitable, get to pay poverty wages, in order to protect this minority group whose businesses really would collapse without supplementation by people self-respecting or desperate enough to work a 40-hour week for £12,000 a year.

Maybe we could think about making work pay properly by paying people properly for their work, and offering tax credits to the businesses that really do need some help in developing a payroll. Then people without much in the way of skills and aspiration might feel a little less socially excluded and be a little less likely to socially exclude themselves in turn.