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You might have thought that after a decade of government promises to tackle child poverty and social exclusion, a shared objective would be the least we could hope for.

Not if the opening paragraphs of a new select committee investigation are to be believed.

The House of Commons work and pensions committee introduces its report on child poverty with the comment: ‘We are aware that public sympathy for the poor in the United Kingdom is at a low level.’

The MPs continue: ‘Many assume that … if someone is poor it must be due to their own poor choices or personal failings. The government needs to take a lead on challenging these misconceptions.’

So what has it been doing for the last decade? Why, given the deluge of academic studies, policy initiatives, local projects and funding streams, are we still so ignorant about poverty, its causes and its solutions?

To begin to understand, we must appreciate that for all the trumpet-sounding and drum-beating of ministers, government as an institution works very differently – and sometimes not at all.

This institutional paralysis is nowhere more evident than in the Department for Work and Pensions, that Orwellian-sounding bunker where the deserving are sifted from the feckless.

Ever since the Social Exclusion Unit drew up its strategy for neighbourhood renewal, the benefits system has been identified as a stumblingblock for the poor.

Every proposal for reform has been greeted with objections and excuses by civil servants who have little clue about what it’s like to live in poverty.

I’m grateful to Community Links for a succinct summary of what’s wrong with the system. In short, it’s too complex – you need to be a professional to understand it.

It’s constantly changing, adding to the confusion. It’s outdated – it was created for a world of regular, long term work.

It’s mean. It’s bureaucratic. And it’s full of traps that create disincentives for claimants to change their circumstances.

One of the most promising suggestions has been the Create community allowance proposed by Community Links, the Development Trusts Association and others.

It proposes that claimants should be able to do useful work in their communities while continuing to receive benefits, giving them valuable experience as a route back to work.

The government has been talking about piloting this project: it needs to act before it loses the chance to make a difference.

Julian Dobson, editorial director, New Start Online magazine


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