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You can’t reduce poverty without an adequate welfare state

Labour is right to look to boost wages and housing, but international evidence shows that pre-distribution can never be the whole answer.

Children play a game of football in front of a residential development in the London borough of Tower Hamlets. Photograph: Getty Images.

No one denies that Rachel Reeves, as Labour’s shadow work and pensions secretary, has one of the toughest gigs in town. Fiscally, it seems a Labour government would cap spending on social security. Politically, at a time when highly punitive policies such as the benefit cap attract broad public support, Labour is sensitive to proposing any reform that could be spun as "soft on scroungers". Getting the politics and the economics right will not be easy.

Reeves’s long-awaited speech on social security yesterday was clearly a product of this highly constrained context. Insisting claimants must improve their basic skills looks sensible if implemented fairly, while the focus on contribution is palatable from both the fiscal and political point of view. Given the boundaries within which she operates, Reeves’s decision not to hive off 18-to-24-year-olds from mainstream social security provision and subject them to especial opprobrium has to be commended.

But what did the speech have to offer those of us who see poverty reduction as one of the key functions of a social security system? It’s great to see the political establishment finally recognise that we expect social security to do too much of the heavy lifting in the UK. High housing costs, low levels of parental employment, low and often sporadic wages all require the state to step in and help more than it has to in other developed economies. Without a doubt, addressing these structural determinants would both decrease poverty and drive down the social security bill in one fell swoop.

But international evidence also shows us that pre-distribution can never be the whole answer. The countries we look to as beacons of success - the Nordics, the Netherlands, Germany – still run poverty rates of over 20 per cent before their governments weigh in with taxes and transfers. Unpalatable though it may be, the truth is you can’t reduce poverty without an adequate social security system. 

So where does this leave Reeves and team? In a difficult place for sure. But is it as simple a choice as talk tough or commit political suicide? A public call to remember why we have – and should prize – our social security system is essential and one politicians have long neglected.  It should also be possible to make a case for building a new consensus around the objective of fairness and, crucially, tell us what response Labour can offer to the poorest families, who have borne the brunt of austerity to date. Hard tasks perhaps, but not impossible and they carry the potential to transform the lives of millions. As the evidence shows, without a sustainable settlement on working-age – and especially family – benefits, child poverty looks set to remain an enduring and shameful feature of the British landscape.