Leading Article: A reminder that it's tough at the bottom

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The Joseph Rowntree Foundation is not just the country's foremost sponsor of research into housing and social conditions. Its endowment comes from a businessman who saw no disparity - why should he? - between making chocolate profitably and actively pursuing an ethic of social concern. Right-wingers typically and mistakenly criticise the foundation for pursuing difficult (ie, politically controversial) subjects, such as poverty. It is bound by Joseph Rowntree's trust deeds saying his money was to be put to use not to relieve distress directly but, as he put it, to seek out the causes of social evil.

Edwardians were unafraid to use that term to describe poverty. We find it too strong. Poverty nowadays has become technical - a mass of complicated social security arrangements. It abounds with relative judgements - is possessing what was once a luxury, such as a video, now a necessity? (There is a strong case for saying it is.) We have all bought wholesale into individualism. We may no longer believe Protestant religion but still love its notion of desert. Who is going to put money in a tin for "the poor" without asking in detail about the moral quality let alone the smoking and drinking habits of those who get it?

The decline of the Child Poverty Action Group is illustrative. A generation ago television producers would fight to include its spokespeople; volunteers would queue up to work for it. Nowadays it is an obscure interest group. Poverty is out of sight, out of mind.

There are all sorts of reasons why. Latterly many haves have felt squeezed and insecure. The sound of middle-class complaint has filled the air. We are all sufferers now. Of course that's not true. A big Joseph Rowntree Foundation study last year showed the trend towards greater inequality in the distribution of income that has been rolling since the early 1980s. There is no reason to believe it has suddenly come to a halt.

The poor themselves stay quiet. The great fear of the political class in 19th-century and early 20th-century Britain, that the poor would rise up out of their rookeries and back-ends and march up the Strand, has no end-of-century resonance. "It took a riot," wrote Michael Heseltine in 1981, but what he concluded (rightly) was that special action was needed on Merseyside and in the cities, not in the bowels of an ever more complex social security empire. None of the urban disturbances of the past 15 years has raised the stakes to make poverty a social and political question in the way they have focused concern about more specific, less abstract questions - estates, policing, drugs and, to a limited extent, employment and training.

In such a context it can only be healthy to be reminded that a large body of British citizens live on amounts some of the rest of us would consider loose change. All credit to Michael Grade and Channel 4 for opening their schedules for a series of programmes about the poor, pegged to today's JRF report. (Mr Grade will doubtless, once again, be attacked by the Daily Mail; he should flick his cigar ash and keep up the good work.)

And yet there is a paradox here. Both the report and the programmes are intent on dispelling the idea that the poor are deviant. Their values are the same as ours; they are the same as us, except for money. Poor people cope - heroically. They box and cox, shop carefully, manage debt in ways that would leave the credit card-holding majority breathless. This kills a stereotype but plays havoc with the politics. If the poor cope as well as they do, why worry?

We evidently don't. There is no possibility - in the foreseeable political future - of any major act of income redistribution along the lines, say, of re-linking income support with earnings rather than prices, or pushing income support up by some amount (pounds 15?) that would make the life of the poor more comfortable. No possibility, that is, short of moral revolution or mass conversion to egalitarianism. There is equally no possibility of "policies to end mass unemployment" as the report coyly calls them - this is indeed a report bereft of macroeconomic reality.

Which does not imply fatalism of the poor-are-always-with-us sort (It is amazing how many people can remember that bit of Christian scripture when so few other relevant verses lodge in their brains.) What it does mean is that policy can only be developed on behalf of specific groups, where the public can be convinced that transfers between the haves and the have-nots are well spent, not across some broad anti-poverty front. (Of course policies for poverty are not all about money, as the JRF report makes clear. For example, the privatised utilities have too often proven themselves stiff-necked and downright mean about consumer debt and cut- offs: they could afford to be a little more generous without offending shareholders.)

"Poverty", "low income", "social exclusion" - whatever the euphemism - they are not going to move political mountains any longer. What is needed is argument in detail. Universalism is indeed dead. Programmes and policies have to be targeted. For example on lone mothers, many of whom are poor. By chance the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has just produced new research showing - a tribute to Tory policy this - how high, relative to other countries, are benefits paid to mothers who get jobs. Yet the proportion of lone mothers who work is oddly low. The problem is child care. There would, prima facie, be large benefits from expanding public or voluntary or voucher-backed private provision of childcare places. Fewer women and children would be poor. And that is good for them, good for business, and good for us.

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