The ‘Shared Society’ must learn from the mistakes of the Life Chances Agenda
In December, the Guardian reported that the oft-heralded “Life Chances” agenda was being dropped by Theresa May in favour of a strategy to help a broader group of working class families, or those who are “just about managing.” This group is hazily defined, but it seems to be those with earnings, and those above the poorest who were considered to have been helped by previous social justice agendas.
The shared society strategy has not yet become anything more than a handful of speeches, but there is enough to get a sense of its broad outlines. The risk for May’s agenda is that it fails to learn from the problems of the Life Chances strategy: namely that it neglects income and that it pays insufficient concern of structural and institutional factors.
The Life Chances agenda neglected income in favour of looking at what it saw as the causes of disadvantage. This manifested itself as educational attainment and household worklessness. However, income is an important determinant and affects life chances in a host of ways, including educational attainment. The shared society agenda appears to be shaped around earnings, neglecting income in a different but still important manner. Earnings are of course important and make up most of income, and remain below their 2010 levels for women and below 2005 levels for men. Defining the just-about-managing as those earning between £16,000 and £21,000 firstly allows the government off the hook for its large cuts to in-work support in Universal Credit. It might also create a problem around targeting: a single adult on £21,000 is not badly off, whereas a family of four on £21,000 is. As the Resolution Foundation have noted, this group rely on more than just earnings, particularly if they have children.
The other mistakes that might be repeated in the shared society strategy pertain to larger, more structural problems. The first of these is disability. Disadvantage in the UK cannot be seriously understood without reference to the role of disability, though it has not yet appeared in May’s speeches on the subject. Once the extra costs of disability are accounted for, half of people in poverty are either disabled themselves or in a household with a disabled person. Additionally, disabled people are more likely to want to be in work but lack it, or be low paid in work, than non-disabled people even if they have the same level of qualification The shared Society strategy needs to reflect that further reductions in workless households are unlikely without progress on the disability employment gap, something the Life Chances agenda failed to recognise.
The other problem, present both in Life Chances and the Shared Society, is tenure blindness. The shared society mentions housing affordability, which is no doubt central to many of the problems facing Britain. But the private rented sector, given its insecurity, short average tenures, and poor housing quality, all pose challenges beyond affordability, particularly for the growing number of children who will spend much or all of their childhoods within it.
The agenda is not all bad of course: what works for slightly higher income groups in terms of better services for mental health will also be of assistance to those with lower incomes. References to the cost of living are also a positive sign, given that inflation rates are expected to continue rising. Whether this feeds through into a relaxing of, for example, the benefits freeze for working-age adults remains to be seen.
Strategies to reduce social disadvantage cannot hope to capture every potential problem or permutation of risk. However, neglecting income, disability, and the growth of the private rented sector are likely to hamstring the success of the shared society, as it would have for the life chances agenda.