The struggle to create a more equal Britain risks running out of steam despite significant progress in several areas, warns a study of the country's social divides published today.
The report, by a team led by LSE's Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion, examines the Labour government's record since it pledged to forge a more equal society and shows sharp contrasts between different policy areas .
Notable success stories include reductions in child and pensioner poverty, improved education outcomes for the poorest children and schools, and narrowing economic and other divides between deprived and other areas.
But health inequalities continued to widen, gaps in incomes between the very top and very bottom grew, and poverty increased for working-age people without children, finds the study - commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
In several policy areas there was a marked contrast between the first half of the New Labour period and the second half, when progress has slowed or even stalled.
John Hills, Professor of Social Policy at LSE and one of the leaders of study, said: 'Whether Britain has moved towards becoming a "more equal society" depends on what you look at, and when. Where clear initiatives were taken, results followed. But as the growth of living standards slowed, even well before the recession, and public finances tightened, momentum seems to have been lost in several key areas."
Dr Kitty Stewart added, 'The government can take heart from achievements such as the reduction in child poverty up to 2004. Recent data show that by then, child well-being in the UK had begun to move up the European league table from its dismal showing at the start of the decade that formed the basis of UNICEF's damning 2007 report. But even with improved figures, Britain was still left with one of the highest rates of child poverty out of the 15 original EU members, and the latest figures show it had increased again by 2006/7.'
The study concludes that the decade from 1997 was favourable to an egalitarian agenda in several ways: the economy grew continuously; the government had large majorities and aspired to create more equality; and public attitudes surveys suggested pent-up demand for more public expenditure. But that environment now looks very uncertain, not just in the near future, but also in the longer term. Fiscal pressures from an ageing society could further constrain resources available for redistribution, and public attitudes towards the benefit system have hardened while support for redistribution has declined.
Professor Hills added: 'The 1980s and 1990s showed that hoping that rapid growth in living standards at the top would 'trickle down' to those at the bottom did not work. The period since 1997 has shown that gains are possible through determined interventions, but they require intensive and continuous effort to be sustained."
JRF Chief Executive Julia Unwin said: "We know the potential impact the deepening recession will have on those already living in poverty. This book provides an important, timely and comprehensive assessment of where we are and what remains to be done."
For more information contact:
CASE on 020 7955 6562
or LSE Press Office on 020 7955 7060
Notes to Editors
1. A Findings summary of the study, Poverty, inequality and policy since 1997, is available as a free download at www.jrf.org.uk. The book, Towards a more equal society? Poverty, inequality and policy since 1997 edited by John Hills, Tom Sefton and Kitty Stewart from the LSE's Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion, is published by The Policy Press (£22.99).
2. Areas assessed include:
the effect of policies designed to address poverty, inequality and social exclusion;
what would have happened without those policies;
policy developments and their outcomes on income and health inequality, education, employment, neighbourhoods, minority ethnic groups, children and older people;
migration, social attitudes, the devolved administrations, the new Equality and Human Rights Commission and future pressures.
3. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation is one of largest social policy research and development charities in the UK. Working with the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust (JRHT) it aims to influence policy and practice by searching for evidence and demonstrating solutions to help overcome the causes of poverty, disadvantage and social evil. www.jrf.org.uk
25 February 2009