Don't punish the poor for being poor

At last, and quite deliberately, Tony Blair has allowed the word to pass his lips: redistribution. The political motives are plain. The public needs to be softened up for next year's rise in National Insurance contributions, while the Labour rank and file need to be soothed in preparation for war in Iraq. But Mr Blair's speech on poverty, delivered in London on 18 September, suggests that new Labour is beginning to drop some of its sillier prohibitions on the language it uses. To promise the abolition of child poverty within a generation while also rejecting redistribution was always nonsensical. The claim - repeated by Mr Blair - that we must have "equal status and equal opportunity rather than equality of outcome" is not much less so.

As a mountain of social research demonstrates, children's unequal starting points at home are the main drawback to equality of opportunity. Poor food, poor housing, family stress and so on inevitably affect a child's capacity to learn, and the lack of social capital (good contacts, knowledge of how to present yourself at university or job interviews) can hold back even those who succeed. Poverty, above all, lowers expectations. Children will not get equal chances in life unless there is more equality of outcome in the previous generation; otherwise, as inner-city schools frequently discover, the handicaps are simply too great for any public service to overcome at reasonable cost. Indeed, there is considerable evidence that, pound for pound, spending to boost family incomes is a more effective way of raising educational standards in deprived areas than spending on school buildings, equipment, books or teachers. It may also be a more effective way to improve health than spending on GPs and hospitals.

This is an important point for new Labour to grasp if it is to improve its record on poverty. Not that its record is a bad one: the number of children in poverty (defined as those living in households receiving less than 60 per cent of the national median income) is down by 500,000 from 4.4 million in 1996-97. But progress is slower than many hoped, and attempts to move the goalposts are already evident in Mr Blair's speech. He draws a distinction between "relative" poverty (as above) and "absolute" poverty, and proclaims that the children who suffer the latter are down by 1.4 million. "Absolute poverty", however, is an almost meaningless concept; by the living standards of 19th-century Europe or of Africa now, hardly any Britons today live in poverty. Mr Blair uses less than 60 per cent of the national median income in the Tories' last year of office as his benchmark; if that is all that is meant by his promise to end child poverty in 20 years, no wonder he looks so confident of achieving it.

Relative poverty is the only sensible basis for a debate - it is what makes people feel poor and it is what prevents their children getting equal opportunities. So why the disappointing progress, when successive Budgets have shifted significant resources from rich to poor? The answer - and this may explain Mr Blair's more explicit commitment to redistribution - is that, in the wider economy, wage differentials are still widening. As a result, the government has to run faster to stand still, redistributing more determinedly if it is to prevent poverty actually increasing. That is why a better-educated and trained workforce - which might allow the economy to generate more high-quality, well-paid jobs - is so vital in new Labour's scheme of things, and why a proper understanding of what holds children back at school is essential.

That in turn raises an important question about the government's overall approach. As Mr Blair's speech makes abundantly clear, it believes that people are always better off in work than on benefit. But the language used to make this point often stigmatises the poor, implying that they need a combination of sticks and carrots to persuade them to work at all, as though they were recalcitrant mules. More important, the Labour approach encourages employers to offer and workers to accept what the Americans call McJobs, paying at or just above the national minimum wage. This is bad for the national economy because it discourages high-tech investment, and bad for people because it traps them in dead-end jobs that usually offer little training.

For all its success in targeting money at people who need it, Labour inherits a long-standing and peculiarly British attitude to the poor: that they will idle their days away unless their benefits are set at punitively low levels and removed at the slightest hint of disobedience. The old Labour habit of punishing the rich for the sake of it has rightly been buried; the Tory habit of punishing the poor for being poor has not.

Armageddon? Don't blame us

More on the threat from asteroids, which, as we noted on 29 July, now come thick and fast. According to the New Scientist, a spokesman at Nasa in Washington has stated that the US space agency "would not be responsible if an asteroid destroys the earth". Here speaks the voice of the public official down the ages - "I can't take responsibility for that, guv, it's more than my job's worth" - and it is somehow reassuring, in a world of troublesome change, to know that it will be heard up to and beyond the crack of doom. Schools may fail to open, hospitals to admit patients, trains to run on time or at all - and planets, indeed, may fail to survive. But do not blame the man from the ministry. The correct forms were not completed. Departmental rules made it clear that it was someone else's job. Even as the earth shatters into a billion fragments, you will be sure, through the chaos, to see people passing the buck.