By Louie Woodall.
The words and deeds of this government have rarely been in alignment. However, the gulf between aims and actions is at its starkest when it comes to the goal of greater social mobility.
This mission is supposed to be at the heart of the Coalition’s strategy for creating a fairer Britain, one where a child’s life chances are not dictated by the class and income of their parents.
Yet this laudable policy was grossly absent in last week’s budget. Despite the bluster that this was a budget designed to reward hardworking people, the policy announcements that look like routes out of poverty at first, on closer inspection are nothing more than dead ends.
Take childcare. The government trumpeted its additional spend of £150 million on childcare vouchers as proof of its commitment to remove barriers into work for hard-up families. But an analysis of the distributional impact of the policy reveals that fully 80% of the earmarked funds will go to parents already in the top half of the income scale. Worse, part time workers will receive nothing under the scheme.
What about Osborne’s celebrated help to buy mortgage guarantee scheme? This was the one part of his Budget speech he singled out as a means to boost social mobility:
“The deposits demanded for a mortgage these days have put home ownership beyond the great majority who cannot turn to their parents for a contribution. That’s not just a blow to the most human of aspirations – it’s set back social mobility and it’s been hard for the construction industry. This Budget proposes to put that right – and put it right in a dramatic way.”
Going beyond the strange idea that home ownership = social mobility in the first place, again the benefits are skewed in favour of the better off, (those earning above the median wage)- and even they will struggle to make use of it.
Housing charity Shelter explains that the mortgage guarantee fails to tackle the problem unaffordable homes at its roots, Robbie di Santos says:
“The trouble is, while this makes it easier to get a deposit, you’d be borrowing 95% of already very high house prices, which are way out of kilter with what ordinary people earn. Our calculations – again based on local house prices and local double income households – suggests that the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee would bring the average local home within reach of the average double income household in only 16% of the country.”
Are these the actions of a government committed to a fairer distribution of opportunity across the income scale?
It certainly doesn’t look like it to me. Some argue that faith in social mobility as a weapon against rising inequality is misplaced, and that we should measure our progress in becoming a fairer and more civilized society by how far apart the richest and poorest stand on the income scale rather than by how easy it is to get from one end of that scale to the other.
However, if we understand social mobility as a mechanism for empowering the very poorest to escape the poverty trap, than it does have the potential to change lives and transform society.
Sadly, in the Budget this government has proved it is far, far away from working towards such an end.
Louie Woodall is Editor of Anticipations.