The Social Justice Strategy: transforming lives for the better?
PUBLISHED March 19, 2012
Government's new report has 'much to be commended' says Dan Silver, but falls down badly by neglecting systematic inequality and underlying problems which played a part in last August's street violence
The government last week published its strategy entitled Social Justice: Transforming Lives. There is much to be commended in this. For instance, the debate on poverty is moved beyond the relative income measure alone, beyond the so-called 'poverty plus a pound' approach, in which it could be argued that whilst providing an extra pound in benefits lifts people over the poverty line, it brings little substantive change. Furthermore, there is some recognition of complex and interlinking disadvantages that can result in poverty.
However, the Strategy appears to be mainly concerned with providing a framework to 'mend broken Britain' and a means to tackle welfare dependency. The Strategy claims that social justice will be achieved through 'life change' of individuals, and appears to be focused on the 120, 000 so-called 'troubled families', promoting the concept of work as the sole means to tackle social justice.
Employment is a necessary condition in any strategy, but alone it is not sufficient. The Strategy sets out a 'carrot and stick' approach through a 'combination of incentives and consequences' to support people into work. This is consistent with the aims of UK social policy since Margaret Thatcher (and continued by New Labour), which has sought to align the welfare system with the dominant model of economic growth and efficiency, providing a flexible labour force, a general education system and low levels of social protection, with a large role for the private sector in the delivery of welfare.
Through this approach, the Strategy neglects the systemic inequalities that exist within society and therefore fails to address the necessary structural change, which it can be argued is essential to deliver social justice in the UK and tackle the inequalities that are all-pervasive. These are manifested in 2.67 million people who are unemployed, with many more underemployed and experiencing in-work poverty, and with the 3.8 million children who live in poverty (after housing costs). Ethnicity too is mentioned only once (and as a disclaimer), which is a significant omission considering figures recently which show that half of young black males are unemployed, twice the figure of their white counterparts. There is little mention of gender, which considering the disproportionate impact of the spending cuts on women, is disappointing to say the least.
Critically, the Strategy does not address the failure of the current economic model, which despite the financial crisis of 2008, appears to continue uninterrupted, and has become even harsher through austerity, especially in our deprived communities. As E.F Schumacher wrote in his seminal book, Small is Beautiful. A Study of Economics as if People Mattered, 'infinite growth of material consumption in a finite world is an impossibility'. A radical strategy of social justice, which is so desperately needed, would surely address this.
Unsurprisingly, the Social Justice Strategy does not appear to provide an alternative view of the economy and how this could be made to work more effectively for the whole of society. The fundamental basis of the Strategy rests upon how to best integrate people into the existing labour market. Nor does the concept of co-production, in which communities contribute their essential knowledge to public service delivery, receive a mention. This represents a missed opportunity to create an effective and accountable welfare state, which promotes active equality at a local level, and in which the voice of those experiencing poverty is truly valued.
As over 250 participants at our recent Reading the Riots Community Conversations in Manchester and Salford can attest, this impacts not only on government strategies, but in communities across the country. There was a consensus amongst communities, political leaders, the police and academics that the riots occurred due to complex factors and that the solutions need to reflect this.
The Social Justice Strategy sets out the 'vision for a second chance' society. As Farida Anderson of Partners of Prisoners (who was a panellist at the Manchester event) noted, some people do not even receive a first chance.
The Social Action & Research Foundation will be building on the Community Conversations and having further discussion with our communities and policy makers to develop some recommendations that may begin to address some of the issues raised. This will include tackling intergenerational poverty, promoting restorative models of justice, increasing youth engagement in more innovative ways, and addressing the neglect of Northern perspectives in government and its negative portrayal by the media. Social justice is certainly more than 'poverty plus a pound', but it is also more than moving people into jobs, which incidentally, currently do not even exist.
A Social Justice Strategy is to be welcomed, but it needs to go much further and begin to think about solutions beyond the current economic model, which places too much faith in the markets, and not enough on the people who are the real assets of the United Kingdom. The Budget announcement on Wednesday will provide a clearer picture of the government's approach to this and whether the lives of many people living in poverty will be transformed for better, or for worse.