John Bird: Make the path to good pay fairer and we’ll destroy poverty

"We need new tools to break the rules. We have to tear up the rule book and throw it away. A new grand plan is what’s needed"

If you don’t want people in poverty make them well waged. Make them skilful, artful and careful. Make them knowledgeable.

Make them dedicated to the power of application; to the 10,000 hours of practice Tiger Woods put into perfecting his skills – by learning how to get a golf ball into a tumbler across a large room. To putting in the sweat of brow and mind. Of course, you can have all this shit going for you (I use the word as meaning ‘good stuff’), but then the economy, mental wellbeing or accident can take the shine off your hopefulness.

Ideally, we would create safety nets to catch you from falling. And we would create clever social and educational systems to ensure that we’re producing the astute. And we’d provide people with every opportunity to develop – and then help them to translate – those skills and abilities into a strong wage packet. But if you give people education that doesn’t bring out the best of them, or if you underinvest in them, you condemn them to an eternity of low or no wage. They will join the ranks of the working poor and the unprivileged.

Most people’s privilege comes from the accumulated privileges of the people who brought them into the world. Parent(s) who could hold your feet to the fire – David Lammy, Diane Abbott – to do your school work, and push you out of under-privilege. Or the deals daddy did so that you went to a good school – David Cameron, Nick Clegg. Privilege is nothing more than opportunity; and the greatest opportunity is to put children on a trajectory towards higher wages, and the social esteem that comes with it. And hopefully, the full and democratic life we all yearn to share.

The problem is we’re going to have to buck the system. The system is flawed. We produce too many people who have fraught lives, even before they draw their first breath or take their first halting steps. We have too many people who’ve been advantaged by previous generations – and the breaks they’ve been given even before birth – deciding on how to handle this predictability of failure. From Corbyn to May, and Thatcher to Blair, birth privilege seems to impede them from making a leap of faith into breaking open the predictability-of-failure system.


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We need new tools to break the rules. We have to tear up the rule book and throw it away. A new grand plan is what’s needed. A reinvention of our abject response to getting people out of poverty (instead of cementing them in it). For instance, social security has to be seen as social opportunity. And social housing should be sociable housing, not a ghettoisation of the poorest among us. And more than anything, we have to revolutionise the educational system to up people’s skills throughout their lives. Only then we will really hit the born-into-a-low-pay-life trap.

It’s time to draw up that big plan. All the pilots, trials, schemes and gems – all that best practice – doesn’t converge and coalesce into a dismantling of poverty. The convergence that could change it all is (preached but) never practised. Get the poorest on a good wage and you can say goodbye to poverty. But to achieve it, we’re going to have to stop all this thinking outside the box, when the box itself is vacuous and bankrupt of deep-thinking.

I suggested in the Lords last Wednesday that instead of simply looking at criminals as wrongdoers, we see them as an educational failure. And actually, if you look into the lives of low-paid workers, you see that it’s education – or its lack – that’s cattle-trucked them. So where’s the thinking, strategies and action plans to lift up the 37 per cent of children failed at school, who then make up the poorest and the most-predictably unskilled?

Of course, there are other problems in society as well as poverty. But it does drain a shed load of energy, time and resources out of the life of us all. I suggest that we spend more time on analysing why poverty seems (ever-more) difficult to destroy. But imagine how many millions of people have been lifted out of poverty by their parents’ sensible use of chance and opportunity. And all the privileges that flow from that.

We need to give the needy-at-birth the exit strategies that helped previous generations out. Then we’ll break the cycle.