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The 2020 Public Services Trust Blog

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Equality and Cohesion in an Age of Austerity

By Paul Buddery

Was the Budget fair?  The Chancellor characterised his measures as ‘progressive’ in that the rich stand to lose more than the poor.  But not everyone agrees.  The IFS calls the claim ‘debateable’ , largely because it leaves public services out of the equation.  It is poorer households that tend to be the biggest public service users, with in-kind benefits of £6,300pa for the bottom fifth compared with £3,900pa for the top fifth.  There is a clear and serious risk that a sharp reduction in the funding of public services over the next few years will widen social inequality.  

Can we organise our public services differently, so that an age of fiscal austerity doesn’t also become an age of accelerating inequality?  Yesterday we published Equality, Cohesion and Public Services, a research report that asks how to ensure that poor and disadvantaged individuals, families and communities are not left behind.  It looks at some of the many different approaches to reducing inequalities and improving social cohesion that have been deployed in recent years to ask what’s worked, what we should keep, and where we need to do much better. 

Some important strides have been made, but the evidence presented here is a sobering reminder of just how profoundly unequal we remain in many respects, despite years of reform and substantial investment, so that outcomes in education, health and criminal justice, for example, remain strongly related to social background, race and gender.  Public service interventions in support of equality and cohesion take place in a dynamic environment, often against considerable contrary economic and cultural pressures.  Even where gaps have narrowed, it can be hard to pin down what actually made the difference.  It appears both top down and bottom-up service reforms have made a contribution, although quasi-markets have the potential to exacerbate inequalities in some circumstances.   Targeted investment has helped, but targeting in a way that captures all – or even most – of those who need support is notoriously difficult. 

Our public services have focussed on the fair distribution of entitlements.  In itself this has been reasonable and necessary; but of itself it is clearly not sufficient to move us to a more equal society, underplaying as it does the importance of converting entitlements into valued outcomes.  Key to making this ‘conversion’ happen is a system of public services that gives all citizens a far greater say in deciding their own valued outcomes, and enables them to play a bigger role in achieving these.  The 2020 PST trust believes that our efforts to reduce inequality have been hampered by a besetting habit in public policy making which sees professionals defining the nature of the problem to be ‘solved’, finding the resources to address it, and directing how the resources are used.  In 2020 PST language, services have grounded themselves on ‘social security’, where they should be supporting ‘social productivity’, and never more so than with disadvantaged individuals and communities.

Polly Vizard’s chapter in the report is persuasive in this context.  She proposes that the capability approach, pioneered by Amartya Sen, offers a better framework for analysis and action to reduce equality than those in which debate and practice has traditionally been cast – such as resourcism or negative liberties.  It evaluates the position of individuals and groups in terms of their real freedoms and opportunities – the central and valuable things in life that they can actually do and be.  Linked to a clearer and more accessible rights and human rights framework, Polly argues that the capability approach can deliver benefits not only in equity, but in efficiency.

Many communities, activists and professionals have worked hard to put equality concerns at the centre of public service policy and practice over recent years.  The challenge today is to make sure that they become part of a credible narrative of sustainable reform.

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Posted by Paul Buddery at 1:24 pm
Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The strange death of class in England

By Ben Lucas

Equality has been the hot political issue of the month. This started with John Denham’s interesting speech about equality and fairness, in which he reflected on Joseph Rowntree Foundation research which showed a lack of public sympathy towards poverty. He argued that progressives needed to move away from a symbolic commitment to equality, which he believes that Labour in practice has never really set out to deliver, and instead to focus on fairness, which runs more with the grain of popular sentiment and is as much about resentment towards the undeserving rich as it is about redistribution. This week Alan Milburn published the report of his review into social mobility and the professions and James Purnell launched a new initiative called “Open Left” at Demos, which is a sort of “Future of Socialism” for the 2010s.

The Milburn review provides powerful evidence about why and how social mobility has stalled in Britain. It’s the old story that the vested professional interests have pulled up the drawbridge, so that the professions have become family firms. Practices such as internships simply accentuate this. So does grade inflation in admissions policy at the top universities. Milburn makes the point that his generation were part of the first great wave of social mobility in the professions, when the rapid expansion of the professions created the potential for people like him to break through the glass ceiling. He proposes a second social mobility revolution as Britain rebuilds itself after the recession and responds to globalisation and new opportunities in the digital, creative media, and financial services professions.

Meanwhile, James Purnell says that he wants to start fleshing out a new approach to equality based on Amartya Sen’s concept of freedom as capability building. The idea being to focus not just on income but on equipping people with the capabilities that would allow them to be in control of their own lives, creating their own life outcomes.

All of this fresh policy thinking is to be welcomed. It follows an earlier foray into equality policy from the Conservatives, in which David Cameron accepted that relative inequality was as significant as absolute poverty. Britain is a strikingly unequal society and this is not only an affront to social justice it is also bad for the social health of society. As the authors of the Spirit Level argue, inequality is bad for society as a whole because of the strong correlation between unhappiness and inequality.

But there’s one word which seems to be missing altogether from the renewed interest in equality – ‘class”. It used to be that the idea of class was at the very heart of discourse about equality in Britain. It was only in the 1980s that the old left grudgingly came to accept that tackling gender and race inequality were also important priorities. For the left, building class consciousness was a critical element of egalitarianism. There were powerful working class institutions such as the Workers Education Association (WEA), trade unions, the co-operative movement, working mens club and mutual societies. These institutions gave working class people collective agency, some measure of control over their lives, strong social networks and routes for collective and individual advancement through education and training.

Despite research showing that a majority of British people still consider themselves working class, many if not most working class institutions are now in steep decline and class itself is rarely discussed by politicians. Much of this profound change is attributable to the decline in manufacturing and the fact that the social institutions which were created around mass production have now lost their raison d’etre.

This huge cultural change is both cause and consequence of 21st century inequality. The era from the second world war until the 1980s was one of social and cultural mobility. It is impossible to disconnect “Billy Liar”, “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” and “Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads” from the social mobility they both represented and helped to propel. The dominant mood of the time was in favour of change, John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” was what everybody wanted to be and it was only antiquated class barriers which stood in the way of change. The objects of ridicule were middle class mores and outdated customs. But in recent years all that has changed. In much popular culture today the joke is on the working class – with the exception of Jimmy McGovern’s “The Street”, working class characters are more likely to be depicted as ‘chavs’ than ‘heroes”.

None of this is to argue for turning the clock back to an era which was in most important respects far less progressive than our one. But it is to say that class is still an important factor in thinking through new policy on equality. It is particularly odd that class should be so little discussed at a time when both sociology and behavioural economics are enjoying such a renaissance. You cannot get close to creating new social norms and building new social capacity without an appreciation of the impact class has on behaviour.

The challenge for those who want a more equal society is to find the right ways of enabling people to live the lives they choose. Income transfers have a vital role to play and renewing the commitment to eradicate child poverty is clearly critical. But what is also required is bottom up social change, which helps build individual and social agency and creates new social institutions rooted in modern times. This should involve fusing the idea of multiculturalism with individual and collective empowerment – looking to find new ways in which local communities can take ownership of assets ranging from housing to schools. Not only can this help liberate potential and build social capacity it can also enable public services to tap into social resource at a time when public funding will be under very tight pressure. Developing this new frontier should be the priority for all those who are engaged in thinking through how to create a fairer society, from “Open Left” to “Progressive Conservatism” and to “Red-Toryism”.


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