Driven by the Lib Dems and work and pensions secretary Ian Duncan Smith, the coalition’s Social Mobility Strategy has admirable aims and a handful of sturdy policies – including the ‘pupil premium’, and a boost for apprenticeships. The Labour government also worked hard on social mobility, and it had money to spend; yet its efforts to subsidise low-paid work, invest in urban regeneration and improve inner city schools, while pausing the growth in income inequality, did little to foster movement up and down the income scale. Pouring cash into low-income families failed to tackle an underlying polarisation of incomes. Unfortunately, this government too faces powerful economic and social headwinds.
There are many factors behind weakening UK social mobility. In the retail and service industries, big corporations have squeezed the barrow-boys; decline in our industrial heartlands has reduced opportunities and created benefit dependency (something that IDS’s Universal Credit will struggle to overcome while jobs remain scarce); the trades have become professionalised, and education more important; and internships have become an essential first step in many industries (the coalition wants to formalise access, but how will poor interns pay the rent?). Above all, there’s the nature of our economy. It’s no coincidence that the UK and US have far less social mobility than the Scandinavians: with smaller public sectors and deregulated markets, we redistribute less from rich to poor, offer workers less protection, and spend less on public services – leading many of those with money to buy better private services instead.
Last year, income inequality showed a big fall, thanks largely to tax and benefit changes made in Labour’s last Budget. But as the coalition’s cuts bite, the poorest are facing a squeeze on incomes – just as many of the services designed to foster long-term social mobility take a hit. Sure Start is a shadow of its former self; youth services and charities have suffered in council cuts; the expansion of academies weakens the position of the first, more targeted wave; service cuts are weakening the support systems that free up poorer people to focus on getting ahead.
Against forces this big, many of the coalition’s ideas look a little token. This year, Whitehall’s internships took on 176 people (p21). Social justice boss Mark Fisher has good ideas, but no budget and little clout (p19). And in university education, fair access chief Les Ebdon (p16) is facing a vast tuition fees hike. The middle classes know the worth of education and of long-term investments; those without qualifications or money have less experience of their value, and for them tuition fees are a major deterrent.
Given the recession, our class system and the nature of our economy, increasing social mobility would always be a struggle. But add the coalition’s benefits and budget cuts to the mix, and its Social Mobility Strategy has a whiff of King Canute about it. This is the UK; we’ve never had much in the way of social mobility. But if the government is going to have a strategy for it, it could at least make it a convincing one. ?