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Leading article The Week

A simple solution

There is something deeply unfashionable about British poverty.

14 December 2009

12:00 AM

14 December 2009

12:00 AM

There is something deeply unfashionable about British poverty. We worry endlessly about melting glaciers, and wear wristbands to demand an end to hardship in faraway lands. Christmas cards are sold in aid of dogs, birds and children in other countries. But we prefer to avert our eyes from the British poor. They’re looked after by the welfare state, aren’t they? Problem solved, now let’s get on with enjoying Christmas.

It might be easier to ignore problems at home, but that won’t make them disappear. This Christmas one in six British people will be jobless — and even this horrific figure masks a far worse picture regionally. A quarter of Birmingham, Liverpool, Glasgow and Middlesbrough are now living on benefits.

Joblessness begets joblessness: statistically, anyone who is on benefits for over two years is more likely to retire than to find work again. This is now true for three million British people — 750,000 of them under the age of 45. Many of those on the dole are people who did not recover from the last recession.

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For all the pious promises made ten years ago — an end to poverty by 2020, etc — the decade now drawing to a close has seen little progress. When the economy grew, it did so in such a way that bypassed the welfare ghettoes, where people were paid not to work. We used the new immigrant workforce instead and extolled their virtues. This has led to social segregation; the unemployed isolated in a culture built around benefits.

The British jobless have been betrayed by the error of the noughties: a love of complex, top-down, target-driven fixes. Poverty was translated into figures on a computer screen, and then these figures were mani-pulated until they gave the appearance of improvement. A similar love of complexity did for the bankers: they believed their computers eliminated risk, that they had abolished boom and bust. Mr Brown believed his inflation targeting had done the same. Both borrowed recklessly on this basis, with calamitous results. Brown’s basic error was to believe that the more complex the welfare state became, the better it promoted social justice. But the law of unintended consequences (the law Westminster lives by) meant that the welfare system now sustains the evil it was set up to eradicate. Every day of this year, 1,900 more people have fallen into what was intended to be a safety net, but has instead become a trap. The risk is that, as the crawl to recovery begins, these people cannot escape the trap: that once again their place in the workforce will be taken by an industrious immigrant class.

A decade of trying to fine-tune society — an effort as hubristic as anything attempted by the bankers — has led to calamitous results and great human cost. One in five British children live in workless households, and grow up knowing only what Beveridge called the ‘giant evil’ of idleness. This ratio will rise next year as unemployment increases. We are breeding a new type of poverty. Income levels may be at a state-defined minimum, but these children will be exposed to sink schools, welfare ghettos and violent crime.

But there is an answer — a simple and obvious answer looking out at us from the scenes of the Nativity represented on cards and in cribs around the country this Christmas. The answer is the family: the greatest, most powerful provider of welfare ever invented, the first, best and cheapest source of health, wealth and education. As an institution, the family is weaker in Britain than almost anywhere else in Europe. One in four children grow up with a lone parent. Why is this never mentioned when we ask why we suffer such high levels of child poverty and low child-welfare indices?

Artists over the centuries have struggled to depict the paradox of the Nativity: an omni-potent God in the form of a helpless newborn child. But one of the most important messages of Christmas is that the Saviour was born into a loving family. And the power of that family is something that no government has ever managed to replicate.

The time has come to stop trying. Faith in the family may be a tremendously unsophisticated welfare policy — but we have tried complex solutions for a decade now, to no avail. The failure has been spectacular. It is time for a simple solution again.

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