The great urbanist Jane Jacobs was never one to hedge her opinions with ifs and buts. ‘To seek causes of poverty is to enter an intellectual dead end because poverty has no causes,’ she thundered in The economy of cities. ‘Only prosperity has causes.’
If only Joseph Rowntree had known, before donating his fortune to a foundation dedicated to discovering the causes of poverty.
Think of the academics who could have found gainful employment investigating how to successfully manufacture widgets instead.
If we are to read anything into recent shifts of public spending, it’s that Gordon Brown accepts the Jacobs thesis: the way out of poverty is to create work. Hence the decline of neighbourhood renewal in the government lexicon and its replacement with ideas like the working neighbourhoods fund.
This government wouldn’t be the first to hold to the dictum is that the only escape from poverty is to work your way out.
Long before Hitler, the slogan ‘Arbeit macht frei’ was the clarion call of the doomed Weimar Republic. But despite everyone’s best efforts, the poor are still with us.
The fact is that we have not yet found a way of creating wealth that does not simultaneously, and as a product of its activity, also generate poverty.
This is a conundrum because the failure to create wealth generates even deeper poverty. So Jacobs is right that we must look to the causes of prosperity; and Rowntree is right that we must continue to search out the causes of poverty.
What really doesn’t help, though, is to indulge in public hand-wringing without acknowledging that poverty is a by-product of the way we have chosen to live.
Launching the government’s new Child Poverty Unit this week (now there’s a touch of brilliance) Ed Balls, secretary of state for children, intoned: ‘Ending child poverty is a simple moral imperative; it has no place in modern Britain.’
Whether or not it’s a moral imperative, child poverty will continue unless and until we recognise that in even the most flourishing economy many get left behind, and their children suffer as a consequence.
The government can leave the market to its own inefficiencies, or we can collectively use more of our national wealth to ensure that those left behind are not discarded, and have opportunities that allow them to succeed in the future. What we get out depends on what we put in.
Julian Dobson, editorial director, New Start Online magazine