More opportunity with less help: down the benefits rabbit hole with David Cameron

The world is your oyster — you’ll need to top it up yourself. PA/Peter Byrne

It’s not unusual for me to feel like Alice in Wonderland when listening to politicians. But watching David Cameron’s One Nation speech at an academy school in Runcorn made me feel that I was falling into an even deeper rabbit hole than usual – and one that led to an even more surreal place.

Cameron’s stated aim was to set out how his government would bring greater opportunity to everyone in the UK – “for every child in Britain to have the chance to go as far as their talents will take them”. This, he said, would be achieved by establishing a “higher wage, lower tax, lower welfare society”.

This is to be achieved by lowering the benefit cap, sending in trusts to run failing social services and turning failing or coasting schools into sponsored academies.

Having “opportunities” and being able to go as far as your “talents” take you, whoever you are, is only possible in a society with high levels of social mobility. If you live in a country with low levels of social mobility, where a child’s life chances are constrained by their parent’s incomes, education and social class, then you can have all the aspirations you like and work as hard as you can – your chances of escaping a background of poverty and deprivation are still pathetically small.

And in every study comparing social mobility among the rich, developed countries, the UK does abysmally badly. What those international studies also show very clearly is that a society cannot have equality of opportunity without equality of outcome.

Social mobility is closely correlated with a country’s level of income inequality. As an OECD report points out, a child growing up in a poor family in Denmark has three times the chance of doing better than their parents than a child growing up in the UK.

Anti-austerity protesters march in London ahead of Cameron’s speech. Alan Stanton, CC BY-SA

And so this is where Cameron’s weasel words start to really bother me. (Are there weasels in Wonderland? There certainly are in the Wind in the Willows, and they are not very nice).

He wants opportunities, he wants to encourage aspiration, he wants social mobility but he wants to get it by cutting benefits and the services that help people make a success of their lives. He wants to do it by making poor people poorer.

Cameron says his government will work tirelessly to deliver opportunity over the next five years. He has his work cut out since his last government has worked tirelessly over the past five years to make more children poor. An independent report published in April 2015 found that, since 2012, government welfare cuts pushed hundreds of thousands, including more than 300,000 children, into poverty. Government statistics to be published by the end of June are also expected to reveal a reversal of the years of progress tackling both relative and absolute child poverty.

Of course inequality is not only related to social mobility - research shows that it also adversely affects physical and mental health, child wellbeing, drug abuse, violence, teenage births, and levels of imprisonment, all factors that hold people back from flourishing and all of which have huge social and economic costs.

What is really needed to break the vicious circle in which inequality creates economic instability which creates austerity which worsens inequality are bold policies including progressive taxation of incomes, high taxation of inheritance and the elimination of low pay and precarious labour conditions. Inequality reduction goals need to be set and social investment in children brought back to pre-crisis levels.

I want to believe that our government truly wishes to improve the wellbeing of the population. I tell myself that perhaps top ministers did not learn to understand hard data in the course of their privileged educations. But the International Monetary Fund, the Pope, the World Bank, the OECD, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and Nobel Prize-winning economists are all shouting loudly that inequality damages the economy. They are warning that it damages social cohesion and wellbeing and that trickle down doesn’t work.

With that in mind, I can only interpret Cameron’s speech not as ignorant but callous, and not wishful thinking but a deliberate turning of his back to the evidence.