Leading Article: Neglected home truths about poverty in Britain

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The Independent Online

A new survey has uncovered some unpalatable truths about life in modern Britain for the very poorest. Researchers from York University interviewed 70 low-income families spread around the country and discovered that they regularly go without things that the more fortunate among us take for granted. Some have skipped hot meals because budgets are too tight. Several do not have a single family day out a year. Their homes are frequently unheated in winter. The effect of this deprivation on children is especially sad. Children as young as five are worrying about their parents' financial situation. Some do not ask for Christmas presents and keep quiet about school trips because of the cost. The cumulative mental effect of this kind of life should not be underestimated. The researchers found that it tends to induce a sense of helpless depression.

It is true that there is virtually no absolute poverty any longer in Britain of the sort that would have been recognisable in the Victorian era. Very few people starve to death any more, or lack shelter. Everyone has access to free healthcare and education by right. But that does not mean there are no longer any poor people in Britain, as these collected testimonies demonstrate. Relative poverty matters. And too many children are growing up in circumstances of neglect and deprivation.

In fairness, it should be acknowledged that the Government has had some success over the past decade in reducing poverty. Tax credits, developed by Gordon Brown when he was at the Treasury, have lifted some 700,000 children above the poverty line. This represents real progress, although poor communities still have to put up with poor transport, sub-standard housing and failing schools. When it comes to public services it is the very poorest who tend to get the worst deal.

Yet it is also true that a Government approach to reducing poverty that has relied heavily on public expenditure has reached the limits of its usefulness. The Government is not on target to reach its goal of halving child poverty by 2010. It is becoming increasingly clear that this aspiration will not be met by money alone.

Tax credits and the minimum wage have made work pay better, but a benefit "trap" remains. This is not to castigate those who rely on benefits. It merely reflects the fact that, too often, the system creates a financial disincentive for claimants to enter the job market.

The other major factor in poverty is a lack of skills and confidence. Some 2.6 million are claiming incapacity benefit. Most impartial observers have concluded that around a million of these could be in work. This would not merely be good from the perspective of cutting the welfare bill, it would be good for the claimants themselves, enabling them to lead a more fulfilling life. The Government has begun to address this problem but needs to do a lot more to promote skills training for the long-term unemployed to give them the confidence to return to the booming job market.

It is time for a new approach to the problem of poverty. The right needs to wake up to the fact that poverty is not simply a consequence of personal moral failure, but a social disease that robs people of ambition and hope. Economic liberals need to recognise that the rising economic tide is failing to lift all boats and that poverty is becoming an increasingly entrenched and geographically clustered phenomenon. Meanwhile, the left should accept that a healthy life on benefits is as great a waste of potential as deprivation itself.

Poverty in Britain is different from the poverty we read about in history books or witness in the developing world. It will require different solutions. But the challenge of wiping it out is no less urgent for that.

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