Friday, September 06, 2013

Education is the Only Key to the Poverty Trap

First published in the Western People on Monday.

Independent TD Denis Naughten floated an idea the week before last about making a connection between child benefit payments and a child’s educational record. The idea got no traction whatsoever, which is a pity – Denis Naughten may just have stumbled on a philosopher’s stone for a very modern problem, the problem of the poverty trap that is inherent in the welfare state.

The fundamental question of a welfare state is one of balance. In all the changes that have occurred in Ireland, there is no system of morality that suggests the less-well-off should be left to paddle their own canoes. However, legislators looking at the big picture have to ask themselves at what stage does the balance change and, instead of the state giving the less-well-off a chance to get back on their feet, the state atrophies hope, institutionalises despair and condemns the less-well-off to a fate as hopeless and without chance of improvement as that of the serfs in Imperial Russia for generation after generation?

This isn’t an Irish problem; this is one of the great questions of modern civilization. Prussia was the first country to introduce a welfare state, that is to say, a state where the government made provision for those of its citizens who could not make provision for themselves, but the it was only after the Second World War that the modern welfare state as we know it came into being. Of the major western countries, it’s only the USA that doesn’t operate a welfare state of some kind, and that’s partly to do with the balance between the balance of power between the individual US states and the federal government itself – the poor tend to fall between the cracks as each expects the other to act.

The state should have some role in looking after those who cannot help themselves. In his memoir of his time in public life, the first ever full minister for the Gaeltacht, Pat Lindsay of Gaoth Sáile, defended his creation of breac-gaeltachta, areas that were designated as Gaeltachta even though the actual level of Irish in those areas wasn’t great. As far as Lindsay was concerned, those were his own people who were suffering and if he could help them he would, and would not let insufficient expertise in the use of the Tuiseal Ginideach stand in his way.

Who would argue? Who would deny the woman of the roads her little house, with dresser, hearth and all?

The problem is that sixty and seventy years on, communities have developed that now know nothing but the welfare state. What was once a source of shame or embarrassment is as normal as having hands or feet. It’s highly politically incorrect to say so, but this is the reality. There are families in Ireland who have not had anyone working and paying taxes into the third generation. This is the poverty trap inherent in the system. A poverty of ideas and ambition as much as a poverty of material wealth.

In an earlier generation, the idea was that there was progression in society. The idea was that, even though your background was humble your opportunities were just as good as those whose backgrounds were better and if you worked hard you could change your circumstances, and guarantee a better background for your own children to enjoy.

What precise incentive exists for people in a long-term poverty trap to ensure that their children have different lives to them? Are they happy with their lives as they are? Are they worried that a change of life would alienate their children from them? Are they concerned for their children’s welfare but lack the wherewithal to effect a change?

This is where Denis Naughten’s proposal comes into its own. The only true weapon in the fight against poverty is education. It’s not money; money comes and goes. It’s education. It’s knowing what’s important and what’s not, it’s understanding delayed gratification, it’s planning for the future and it’s having skills to allow you to make more money than you could if you were unskilled.

Whatever about the prospects of adults caught in a poverty trap turning their luck around, the possibility exists for their children. But the possibility only exists through education. It’s not easy – for all the rhetoric about equality of access, children going to private schools will always have a jump start – but while not easy it is possible.

The problem is that people in a long-term poverty trap don’t always realise the difference that education can make to their children’s future, for any or all of the reasons already mentioned. They may not put the same pressure on their children to attend school as other parents do, they may not monitor homework, there may be other issues at home.

Denis Naughten’s proposal addresses all this. At a stroke it deals with people claiming family benefit who do not have children in Ireland at all, and it reminds parents of the vital importance of their children’s education by hitting them in exactly that spot where we all feel it the most – the pocket. A generation later an area that was a wasteland could be thriving, and populated with people who will pass on the value of education to their children and their children’s children.

Not only that, it also sets a bar for state intervention. It’s been the case when family tragedies occur that the newspapers ask why didn’t the State intervene sooner, and the State invariable shrugs and says but sure we didn’t know. If Denis Naughten’s idea is taken seriously, we will have a number of flags in the system that will help identify real problem families and concentrate resources on them.

Are there sticking-points? Of course. There are several details that have to be ironed out, but the kernel of Naughten’s idea is excellent. It identifies education as the single best thing the state can provide to a child, it rewards responsible parents who school their children well and it identifies problem families where full State intervention is needed. Well done, Denis Naughten, and more luck to you.