Hopes for 2012: Eliminate Child Poverty

New Year's Fireworks at the London Eye. Source: Wikipedia

by Babak Moussavi

As my fellow editor, Joe, has pointed out, we are an optimistic species. The concept of a New Year’s resolution implies this: each year, we are filled with the belief that we can make steady and structured improvements in our lives, with the goal of becoming happier. Perhaps I was tired and misunderstood, but I am sure I heard the BBC presenter just before the new year’s celebration urging people to write down these non-binding covenants made with themselves, by saying that people who make New Year’s resolutions are “10 times more likely to achieve these goals than those who don’t”. That’s interesting: how can it only be 10 times more than those who haven’t professed goals? That means that those who don’t have goals still have a chance of achieving them!

Forgive me if I sound like a cynic. But I am not complaining about resolutions. Having a goal, a hope, or an ambition is highly valuable. Not only do you have a target, but also a sense of what will make you happy.

Nevertheless, New Year’s resolutions epitomise the individualistic notion that happiness can be made by ‘me’ alone: I only have to make these changes, and I will be happy. Cut back on fatty foods. Go to the gym more. Travel to different countries. Become a millionaire. Get a driving licence (my unspoken one for the past few years…). Such individualism, espoused by the Reagan-Thatcher revolution, represents a breakdown of the European post-war consensus built around society, community, and solidarity. Indeed, as the late historian, Tony Judt, argued, modernity is not about individualism, but about learning to live together. If we forget how to do that, we can forget about happiness.

There are goals that would make us happier, safer and more comfortable. As a corollary, there are resolutions too. But we can only achieve these goals with concerted effort, not through the individualistic approach to what makes us happy.

There are many examples I would offer; most relate to the provision of local and global public goods, such as improving the quality of and access to education and healthcare, in order to enhance opportunity for all. I will be unashamedly optimistic about the effect of one societal goal though, if not about its likelihood of occurring.

My hope for 2012 is that our society begins to make a genuine, focused effort to eliminate child poverty. If we were to achieve this, the UK (for now) would be completely transformed: crime would plummet, education would rocket, innovation would expand, people would be healthier, happier, less suspicious, less envious. Indeed, one does not need to believe or reject the wealth of evidence presented in The Spirit Level, to argue that raising children out of poverty is a worthy goal.

I am deliberately not going into details here – that is manifestly not the purpose of this post. But in this context, that should not matter, as I am referring to grand hopes and abstract goals, not specific policies or watertight definitions. This does not detract from a strong belief – and hope – though: eliminate child poverty and society will flourish. Bring on 2012.

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    • Mr Bright, your three questions all deserve essay responses… And there I was attempting to be vague.

      As a starting point, absolute poverty ought to be the target, partly because it’s easier to measure, but also because the aim should be to set a level of sufficiency under which no child should grow up. The ‘good’ society needs a plurality of values and the logic of equality without sufficiency is full-scale levelling-down. Hence the importance of this set minimum. What exactly fits in this ‘bundle’ of goods that no child (or person) should go without is not something I can’t articulate precisely at this stage, but it clearly involves the provision of good education, and healthcare and society’s support in preventing broken homes and troubled childhoods. As Sen says, it’s about allowing people to realise their capabilities – people born into poverty are much less likely to achieve this, if at all. (The state can only provide so much assistance though; I think many of the solutions can be found in improving the ‘choice architecture’ for people in society, in the way described by behavioural economists – the so-called ‘Nudge’ approach).

      Interestingly, the well-timed Zoe Williams article refers to a PWC report (unfortunately her url didn’t work when I tried) that suggests universal free childcare would yield a £40bn saving after 65 years. That’s the sort of benefit I would be expecting from such a policy, but it’s also the kind of long-term thinking that short-term, election-focused democratic politicians don’t have a direct incentive to initiate (which of course, is another problem that needs to be addressed).

      I do think more equal (democratic) societies are happier and healthier on the whole though, and there is evidence to support this (I mentioned the Spirit Level for one). So minimising relative poverty is the end goal. But eliminating absolute child poverty would be a huge contribution to equality of opportunity, which, in turn, would mitigate relative poverty – a positive feedback loop, for sure.

      Moreover, relative poverty is not just about being at the bottom materially, but rather about being unable to fulfil ones capabilities. If those at at the bottom are raised to the point at which they still have a very plausible chance to ‘succeed’ and realise their capabilities (thanks to the establishment of a social minimum at that as yet undefined level of sufficiency), then relative poverty – for all practical purposes – can be said to be eliminated. It is theoretically possible – you just have to define the terms.

  1. Josh M said:

    With regards to the UK, I think the argument’s already been won that reducing child poverty would be clearly in the country’s long-term economic (not to mention social, moral, etc.) interest. As it’s a goal that would require a strong and consistent long-term drive, however, the viciousness of the electoral cycle and the current obsession with short-term government deficits mean it’s unlikely that any serious attempt reduce child poverty will be undertaken, not to mention a lack of genuine commitment among politicians.

    Individualism amongst the majority of us is certainly an enormous problem, but I think the even greater is that of those in power and their lack of genuine will to achieve such noble goals: to work first and foremost for ‘the most vulnerable in society’ rather than those who can offer the biggest campaign finance. This is where I think we should aim to raise awareness, focus and apply pressure.

    I should point out that the article only seems to be focused on UK child poverty, which is by probably among the least severe worldwide. You also recently wrote a strong defence of Tony Blair’s journey on this site, which I’m sure went a significant way to increasing worldwide child poverty with his wars. Anyway, good post, the more this issue gets raised to the fore, the better, but we mustn’t forget the international context.

  2. Josh, apologies for the delay in replying, and thanks for your comment.

    I don’t disagree with you on the first two paras. Indeed, these are things I refer to in my response to Sam above.

    The focus on the UK context was deliberate – as it is a mere hope for the year, not a global solution – but I don’t see national borders as genuine boundaries in this instance. Of course, if child poverty is to be eradicated properly, it would need to be eradicated globally. But if we can’t even manage it in Britain, what hope for managing it in the world? I guess I was just suggesting taking one step at a time.

    If you consider my review of Blair’s book to be a strong defence (though I acknowledge you admitted to me elsewhere that this rather meant that it wasn’t brutal enough) then please feel free to post comments on that article with specific points about where I have gone wrong (or been too lenient!). For a genuinely strong defence, I would recommend Jonathan Powell’s book, ‘The New Machiavelli’, which describes Blair in the most glowing terms. For the opposite, read this one: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/dec/23/no-prime-minister/

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