June 27, 2010


Want to protect the poor? Then give them jobs: Most people who are 'forced’ into minimum wage jobs move quite quickly up the earnings ladder (Janet Daley, 26 Jun 2010, Daily Telegraph)

Can anyone still believe that the largely catastrophic consequences of Big State solutions to poverty, to housing shortages, to unemployment, to educational disadvantage, have been pure coincidence?

The effect of government housing programmes is a perfect case. Council housing – with its class‑ghetto implications – always seemed to me to be a pernicious social phenomenon, reinforcing social divisions and encouraging passivity. Not only were people told where they would live, but they were often forbidden to make changes to – or take responsibility for – their own homes. But now, in areas where unemployment has become endemic, council estates have become social death-traps.

As Iain Duncan Smith points out in our interview with him today, the security of tenure of the council tenant means that he dare not risk moving to another area of the country – or even to the far side of his own city – to seek employment for fear of losing his housing rights. So we have large swaths of unemployed people tied like serfs to the land, in workless communities, doomed to a hopeless future in which no one in their everyday acquaintance is in paid employment.

This is a grotesque state of affairs that was born out of good intentions, but by now it should be clear why it has come to this pass: when the state creates a mass, collectivist solution to a problem, it ends up treating people as categories (“the poor”, “the deprived”, “the homeless”) rather than as individuals who are ultimately going to have to determine their own fate.

Mr Duncan Smith speaks of introducing mechanisms for “portability” and “flexibility” in housing provision, which is another way of saying that we must create routes for people to escape from the monolithic state solution in which they are imprisoned.

The council estate is a way of encasing people in a bricks-and-mortar embodiment of government policy, but benefit dependency is a more all-encompassing form of incarceration from which it can be virtually impossible to break free. The scandal of welfare dependency as a way of life is now so well-established that there is no need to rehearse its depressing facts again.

But we must be clear that we have not got to where we are by accident. It is the basic premise of Big State thinking that has produced the monstrous edifice that we know as the benefits trap: the idea that “the poor” are a fixed and immutable section of society who must be “protected”. Sadly, what “protecting the poor” generally amounts to in practice is “protecting poverty” – which is to say, preserving it. Welfare dependency creates huge disincentives to entering employment because few jobs at entry level can offer a competitive package of payments and support equivalent to the benefits system. [...]

The tragic inevitability of government intervention is that when you create a permanent agency to deal with a problem it has an inherent tendency to make the problem itself permanent. This is not only for self-serving reasons – to justify its own continued existence – but because it prefers to deal in fixed entities such as poverty, deprivation, or educational inequality, rather than to view the infinite range of human possibilities and personal circumstances as a dynamic, ever-changing spectrum in which individual vagaries matter more than any total result.

It's the Shirky Principle: "Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution."

It's why the most terrifying prospect of the Third Way to the Left is that it might prove effective, offering the poor a permanent way out of poverty and empowering them directly, instead of their bureaucratic caretakers.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 27, 2010 8:14 AM
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