Abolition of poverty is a worthy aim, and the Welsh Government’s Action Plan for Tackling Poverty (available here) published a fortnight ago is clearly based on the best of intentions. I wouldn’t disagree with any of the proposed actions in themselves, and given the limited powers available to the Welsh Government, it’s probably unrealistic to expect much more.
I was left a little uneasy by some of the references to people having ‘problems’ with which they needed assistance; not because we shouldn’t be helping people to overcome difficulties, but because of the implicit suggestion of dysfunctionality and fault. Whilst there’s no doubt that some low-income families suffer from some of the problems referred to, so do some families in other income groups, and it’s that apparent association of dysfunctionality and poverty which left me uneasy.
The real question, though, is to what extent the measures in the plan, even if all implemented successfully, will actually reduce poverty. Given that it’s fairly easy to improve the lot of those marginally below the line, it’s probable that any figures produced will show some improvement, but that may not reflect a significant improvement for the remainder.
The main reason for my doubt is that there is a difference between mitigating the effects of poverty and eliminating poverty itself, and it seemed to me that most of the actions proposed fall into the first category, not the second. That doesn’t negate the value of the actions proposed, but it does lead me to challenge whether they will eliminate poverty or merely redistribute it.
Take educational attainment for instance. There is a clear relationship between poverty and attainment, and improving the levels of attainment of the poorest will help to close that gap – or even eliminate it. But even if every child attains the level of educational success needed for entry into higher education, the government’s other announcement last week of a cap on the number of university places means that the proportion actually receiving such an education will not increase.
And unless the balance between well-paid jobs and low-paid jobs in the economy changes, then the same number of people will still be employed in low-paid jobs. There may be more mobility between income groups – but every opportunity for someone from a poor background to take a high-paid job means an equal ‘opportunity’ for someone from a high-income background to take a low-paid job.
What that in turn underlines is that any real attempt to tackle poverty has to deal with the levels of income and wealth inequality; the cake has to be shared more equally. That’s outside the remit of the Welsh Government, of course. But they don’t even seem to be acknowledging the problem.