Thursday, 5 January 2012

Two big mistakes Governments have made with dealing with poverty

Governments throughout history have made two big mistakes with the way they interact with society - and therefore tackle poverty. Both seeking to control society or abdicating responsibility for it has allowed poverty to increase, not decrease. As well as addressing what the Centre for Social Justice term the five pathways to poverty - family breakdown, educational failure, worklessness, serious personal debt and addiction to drugs and alcohol causes of poverty - the Government needs to continue to look at another problem: how to increase the glue that holds our communities together – social capital. too many people lack aspiration, hope and a sense of belonging to society. 97% of communities have become more fragmented in the last thirty years and even the strongest communities today are weaker than the weakest in 1971.

Increasing social capital is not about creating some utopia; it is about tackling poverty, decreasing crime and creating opportunity. Statistics show that crime is lower in places where people know their neighbours, when parents take an active interest in their child’s school, the teachers try harder and the children do better, and connected communities are good for children: babies are born healthier, teenage pregnancies are fewer, and young people are less likely to get involved in crime.

The ways of doing this are many and complex, but Government can play a role. If social capital is not built, disenfranchisement amongst communities will only increase and we will continue to be stuck in a system of top-down control where people continue to lack aspiration and hope.

In order to facilitate the building of social capital, the Government needs to:
  1. Go further in decentralising power, ensuring that we see ourselves more as citizens with a responsibility for our communities’ well being; instead of us seeing ourselves as taxpayers and clients of the state and statutory providers;
  2. Encourage local governments to share this freedom with citizens in as broad a way as possible with more co-designing of public services & community engagement;
  3. Re-evaluate the model of top down Government contracts. The Government’s announcement that its Community First funding is largely on a match basis (with a financial value placed on time given) is a good start but I am concerned that as long as the UK Government pursues a model based on top-down contracts without community participation, we are increasing top-down control and not enabling bottom-up societal ownership. In an age where we can buy and sell products through eBay, why can’t communities have more of a say in funding decisions or even bid for outcomes?
  4. Make the engagement of communities a requirement for funding for community-based projects;
  5. Ensure funding is more accountable to communities of – let’s not forget – taxpayers up and down the land. National and local governments should be looking at increasing the amount of participatory budgeting so that responsibility for decreasing taxpayers’ spending is in line with community priorities.