Thursday 24 February 2011

Eradication vs amelioration

Last week, I commented on an article on fuel poverty by John Osmond on ClickonWales which made for gloomy reading.  John concluded, and I agreed with him, that it is highly improbable that the governments in Cardiff and London will achieve their targets to eliminate either fuel poverty or child poverty.
Yesterday saw the publication of a report by Save the Children, which drew attention to the very fact that John’s article talked about – the need to address the question of ‘severe’ poverty, rather than just respond to a target for reduction in the numbers of people in poverty.
The reactions of politicians were, I suppose, predictable, if rather less than entirely honest in some cases.  For Labour, Huw Lewis criticised the Westminster coalition for putting further pressure on families with low incomes, and vigorously defended the Welsh Government’s record. 
The opposition parties in Cardiff both saw an opportunity to attack the Labour-Plaid government, with the Tory calling it “a betrayal of the people of Wales” and the Lib Dem talking about “the lack of action and firm commitment from the Labour- Plaid Government”.  But what would they actually do themselves?  The policies being pursued by their parties will, on the whole, make things worse, not better.
The official response from the Welsh Government seemed pretty complacent to me, merely rattling off the usual platitudes about there being “no higher priority for us than ensuring that children and young people whose lives are blighted by poverty have the same life chances and opportunities as their more affluent peers”.  Well, maybe – but I’m certain that the ‘spokesman’ knows as well as I do that the targets will not be met.
It’s not that the intentions are not good.  I do not doubt for one moment the absolute sincerity of the One Wales partners in wanting to address the issue.  Nor is it the case that they have not put a lot of effort into developing a detailed strategy setting out their approach to dealing with the issue (although this may be one of those instances where Carwyn Jones’ reference to the Assembly Government as a ‘strategy factory’ will come back to haunt him). 
No, the problem is that the strategy set out cannot and will not eliminate child poverty in Wales, and the politicians are unable or unwilling to accept that, let alone start talking seriously about the changes that are needed if we really want to eliminate poverty.
In fairness, when looked at more closely, although the strategy says that it “aims to eradicate child poverty by 2020”, eliminating poverty isn’t really what the actions detailed in the strategy will achieve.  They are, rather, about ensuring that “no child or young person is disadvantaged by poverty”.  It may sound like the same thing, but it really isn’t – it is about dealing with and trying to ameliorate the outcomes of poverty, not the poverty itself. 
That’s a more limited aim, albeit a worthy one in itself, and it is a more realistic aim – but it means that the programme of interventions must, of necessity, be open-ended in order to deal with each new generation’s problems.  Against any absolute indicator of poverty, eradication is achievable; the inclusion of relative definitions as well makes it impossible without far more radical action. 
Part of the reason for that is that there are unstated underlying assumptions in the strategy.  They include the assumptions that economic growth will provide extra wealth, and that that extra wealth will be shared in such a way as to “lift families out of poverty”.  In reality, even if the government is successful in creating extra wealth (and there are limits to growth in any event), that extra wealth will also increase the average level of earnings – thereby moving the goalposts for any relative definition.
Any serious attempt to eradicate poverty and inequality has to start by recognising the need for a redistributive approach, and at present, we’re just not seeing that recognition.  There’s nothing in the strategy with which I would particularly choose to disagree – but we shouldn’t delude ourselves about what it can, realistically, achieve.


Democritus said...

Quite right. The primary focus for anyone seeking to reducing inequality (child poverty in particular) has to be redistribution and the main levers for doing that are the tax and benefits systems, which for the foreseeable future rest firmly in Whitehall.

The WAG cannot legislate to ban child poverty. It cannot easily afford to make its own cash transfers with existing budgets under their current pressure. Has anyone been able to work out how many more integrated children's centres we could have opened with the money being used to sudsidise tuition fees?

WAG can of course reform some of its existing programmes to more effectively target causal links to CP (by say, cutting the rate of teenage conception or via more active labour market focused adult continuing education), but there are limits to how much incremental change can be wrung out of such initiatives, helpful though they certainly are.

The only real answer is for the 2 Ed's to come up with some clever scheme(s) to part rich folk from more of their without too many of them flitting overseas. If there is one lesson from Labour's years however it is surely that if you aim to seriously tackle inequality and redistribute wealth (as opposed to just stopping the gap widening further), then you cannot succeed in doing so by stealth.

Anonymous said...

To some extent we have created fuel poverty by allowing domestic heating to be dominated by oil and gas. Neither of which are within the control of our Government let alone that of England (Westminster)and the prices of which are voltile at the best of times
Neither gas or oil will fuction during power cuts.
The coal industry was destroyed by the Conservatives despite the fact that some 200 million tonnes lie under Wales. Is it being mothballed for when the oil runs out by a neighbouring country

Coal use continues here on a small scale but we users Know that an open fire can almost eliminate some areas of waste recycling
As for woodburning I have 25 years
14% of Wales is forested.
The price of a load of wood is like a black hole. I have been offered chipboard blocks fron Chinese pallets. Waterlooged roots
£3 for 6 Logs £100 A load no clue as to how much a load is or what the wood is.. £100 a cubic meter Could go on

The bottom line is that the way out of fuel poverty is to install traditional chimney capacity in all new builds

This will allow the people of Wales to use coal and wood both of which are ours not someone elses

Anonymous said...


If the GDP Of Wales is about 70%of the Uk average then child poverty will always be with us here in Wales unless we take control of our own Country.

Devolution whatever that is and even German style federalism may not be enough
I suspect that child poverty wili always be with us since it is all a question of relativity and once one goal is attained the goal posts are simply raised a notch

What is clear is that there is no political mileage in this one for either Labour or the Conservatives.
We will have to wait until we can control our own affairs here in Wales To quote Carly Simon "Ive already waited too long"

John Dixon said...


"Has anyone been able to work out how many more integrated children's centres we could have opened with the money being used to sudsidise tuition fees?"

Not quite as simple as that. As I understand it, what the government have done is to reduce funding for universities and give the money to students, so that students can then give it to universities; it's not extra money. Of course, one could decide to switch money from universities to children's centres, but that isn't something I'd support.

"WAG can of course reform some of its existing programmes to more effectively target causal links to CP"

and that's the sort of thing they are doing. I don't knock it per se; it all helps to mitigate the effects of poverty. But what it does not - and cannot - do is to eliminate poverty itself.

"If there is one lesson from Labour's years however it is surely that if you aim to seriously tackle inequality and redistribute wealth (as opposed to just stopping the gap widening further), then you cannot succeed in doing so by stealth."

Labour didn't even manage to stop the gap from growing wider, let alone begin to tackle it. And I entirely agree that we need to be open and honest about the need to reduce inequality, but even apparently radical politicians seem unwilling to do so. The great victory of Thatcherism, sadly, was to enshrine individualistic pursuit of wealth as something to which we should all aspire.

'Aspiration' has become the leit-motif of politics, and part of a consensus which people are reluctant to shatter for fear of losing votes. It was the driving force for 'New' Labour, and that party, as a result, reinforced rather than rolled back, the Thatcherite revolution.

Anon 19:23,

Whilst I'd agree that we need to escape from dependency on oil and gas, a return to more widespread use of coal is hardly going to give us a carbon-neutral future.

Anon 19:52,

Independence is no guarantee either of an increase in GDP or of a fairer distribution of wealth. I happen to believe that Wales could and would become a more egalitarian society given control of its own affairs, but there are always limits to what can be achieved in a single country (as a certain Mr Djugashvili proved); we also need international change.

Anonymous said...

The point was not that Wales should burn coal and nothing else
Keeping our options open is the priority
Is our coal being mothballed by the UK government You did not answer the question. I suspect that it is

There is a big issue regarding Welsh Wood as wood is carbon neutral and readily available if we can get our act together.

Other European countries are actively reafforresting

I had a letter recently from South Africa asking for a donation so that local people culd stop burning wood and burn calor gas instead now that takes some thinking.
Back to Simon Hart who wants to colonise Caldey with red squirrels this is really important stuff for an MP but he has not mentioned the impact of squirrels of any type on the other wildlife there

The problem with over viewing a problem as in blogs we may lose sight of what is really going on in the real world

John Dixon said...


I didn't deal with some of your questions because this post wasn't about energy policy, it was about poverty. I've often posted on energy policy and am quite happy to debate it, but generally try and keep debates 'on-topic'. However,

"Is our coal being mothballed by the UK government "

I'm not convinced that the coal is being 'mothballed'; I think the fact that it isn't being exploited is down to two main factors. The first is that during the 1980s the then government wanted to both break the power of the unions and use coal from cheaper sources; the result was the decimation of the coal industry. The second is that, given commitments made to reducing emissions, any large scale attempt to now start exploiting those reserves again would be a move in the wrong direction.

"wood is carbon neutral"

Only if, and to the extent that, it is harvested and replaced in a sustainable way.

Spirit of BME said...

The Save the Children (StC) report is a classic of the Charity Industry as they have invented “severe poverty” which leaves the reader to fill in the blank as to what that might be. It is not what I have seen in India, where the Municipal truck makes its rounds at six in the morning and collects the dead kids off the street, but it is about a set sum of tax payers’ money that is given to a two parent family to support one child or two.
StC clearly does not propose measures that will solve the problem – no future for them in that, but suggests more tax payer’s money to manage it.
So, two things that the StC will never recommend are:
1. Giving someone £20 or £1000 a week to support a child gives no guarantee that the money will be spent for that purpose, the sad case of “Baby P” showed that. I would say 70% of the pay-out should be in vouchers that can only be traded for child requirements.

2.Catching flu is a relatively easy thing to do, you could be on the top deck of a bus, someone in the bottom deck sneezes and as you leave the bus you get the bug. Making babies is more difficult, as it takes complex human reactions; emotionally and physically to make things happen. Modern birth control devices have to date been developed for females and there is a urgent need to bring to market a long term (say 10 to 12 month) male implant or injection that gives males more control in their role in this process. This will contribute to every child being wanted by both parents along with some debate about both parents emotional and financial responsibility.

John Dixon said...


I can understand how your disembodied state would leave you without a heart; but it doesn't have to make you heartless.

I accept that there are always going to be things that people can do to help themselves, and I've accepted in previous comments that what we call poverty - even severe poverty - will look like affluence to people in some parts of the world.

But my underlying point was, and is, that sharing access to resources in the way that we currently do it means that poverty will never be eliminated (whether we are talking domestically or internationally). With increasing population, increasing aspirations, and finite resources, we have to share those resources more equally.