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Opinion

Drip-feeding support to the poor is not going to solve the crisis we face

Social security is not sufficient to help the poor. It needs to be raised if we are ever to help people out of poverty

Michael Gove

Michael Gove's levelling up seems to run more on good intention than actual delivery. Image: Alamy

I meet opponents of the government who know exactly what needs to be done: give the poor more. How right they are in my eyes. Release government funds to raise social security and increase rent support so that when rents rise the poor are not unable to pay, etc etc.  Support people to stay in their homes so that they and their children are not likely to fall into homelessness.   

We live in such an inflation-inspired crisis that we have little choice but to plead for more. The Opposition calls for more, knowing it will not come. Yet if it did come, it would undermine their campaign to become the next government. Labour is calling for more help for first-time buyers, and suddenly the government announces it too is looking at providing greater support. This is a chess game that the poorest among us are losing. A whirligig of pieces are being moved and removed, and yet those in need remain in need.   

Was there a golden time when the poor had everything they wanted, that they needed? If this was the case, did they remain poor? Yes of course they did. My parents were poor but at some stage towards the end of their lives, in the ‘golden’ days of the ’70s, they had comfort and security. They were not living in the slums they started their married life in.  

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They were halcyon days compared to now. They had a well-made council flat and an income from their own labours to ensure that they largely got what they wanted. But now, with inflation stalking the land and social security never meeting the requirements of the day, we have a different reality.  

Over the last 40 years all governments have made up for the financial limitations in people’s lives by giving them support. And that support has proved negligible in providing for all needs. About 12 million people are on state pension, six million people are on universal credit and three million receive housing benefit. But now, because so many rely on state support, there is a dire need to ensure that people can survive through inflation. This is nothing but a drip feeding of people in need.  

The government’s ‘levelling up’ programmes are seemingly intended to move more people away from poverty through skill enhancement, education and social support into work. But as of yet they seem patchy and uneven, often more ‘good intention’ than delivery. Will the opposition parties come up with some joined-up solutions to move people away from poverty? Because it seems that the safest place in the world to be at the moment is not dependent on the government for your financial security.  

But let us not kid ourselves. Even if you got all the support that was due to you – and £19 billion is unclaimed each year, according to The Guardian – you would not be particularly secure. You might, as Theresa May said, be “just about managing”.  

I can’t remember a time when there weren’t deep misgivings among num­erous charities – and advocates for people in poverty – about what the poor were provided with. Now, when things are truly out of hand for people in need and it is impossible to make ends meet, the pressure is immense. This is not the time to crow, but are we not getting our plans and our ambitions all tied up in knots? Successive governments trying to make up for underpaid workers are simply letting employers off the hook. And giving people social security rather than opportunities to get out of need lets the government off the hook. Helping disabled people by providing barely enough for them to make do lets us all off the hook.  

I have never been happy drifting into the crisis as the be-all and end-all of things. My own personal experience of getting out of poverty fires me with a belief that the further you can get away from government support, the fuller a life you are going to have. No government, of whatever complexion, is going to fully support those in need.  

But there are those who did not have the opportunities I had to get out of the grief. I was blessed with custodial sentences that taught me more and more ways of educating and changing myself. It is a bizarre situation that, in terms of education, I was better treated in the young offenders’ institutes than by my own family. I was skilled away from poverty by the justice department of the state.  

I believe that we are on a losing wicket at the moment with inflation and the harm it does to the poorest among us. There are just too many poor people. And we have not done enough to allow more people to escape through education, training, work and social enrichment.  

We have to come up with plans to find our way out of this terrible abundance of need. And that can’t be done simply by campaigning endlessly for more for the poor. We need to provide the thinking and the planning that attack poverty and break people free of it, not simply to keep measuring the depth of the crisis. Proper planning to end poverty has to be as much a priority now as support to weather the financial storm. 

John Bird is the founder and editor in chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

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