Alleviating Parent Poverty in the United Kingdom
Now that Gordon Brown looks like being promoted from Treasurer to Managing Director, it seems just possible that he may be persuaded to reconsider certain applications of scarce resources which, in hindsight, seem to have been mistaken. In particular, it would be nice if, unlike his predecessor, he put the interests of the United Kingdom electorate above any personal aspirations to cut a dash on the world stage — remembering that the Imperial past is long gone, and that the population of his island nation has far outgrown its means of satisfying real and imaginary needs with its limited domestic resources.
My first target is the ex-Treasurer's predilection for alleviating what he called "child poverty" — because there is no such thing. All children are born naked, hungry, and in need of tender loving care which, ideally, is provided by tender loving parents. If the parents are poor, the children will be poor too. So I beseech the Managing Director to ensure that his Treasurer takes cognisance of that fact and keeps it at the front of his mind.
Before considering the practicalities of financial poverty, it is vital to recognise the moral poverty that gives rise to it. Round about the time when the then Treasurer was making great play of "making poverty history" (MPH), referring specifically to Africa, I was walking along a local street and passed a bus shelter displaying a large MPH poster. Like virtually all the bus shelters in this part of the United Kingdom, the glass in one side of this one had been smashed to smithereens — not as a result of a traffic accident but as a deliberate destructive act by young local vandals. There is no prospect of making poverty history, whether in the UK, in Africa, or anywhere else, until a sense of personal civic responsibility is restored in the population at large. This can be inculcated only with the whole-hearted co-operation of parents and teachers in the earliest years of a child's life. All people should be brought to perceive that so-called "public" property is also private property in the sense that it is intended to serve every individual person, including those not yet born.
It is clear that targeting indiscriminate handouts at children and young people on grounds of mere sentimentality tends to demoralise them towards delinquency rather than elevate them towards personal responsibility, and is therefore a counter-productive employment of civil servants. Even more importantly, it constitutes a bureaucratic waste of the hard-earned wealth of the workers who have earned it and who should retain the right to apply most of it as they think appropriate for their own personal and civic purposes.
A "moral" sense is best inculcated by getting people to appreciate that wealth (i.e., well-being), which is the opposite of poverty, has to be earned and maintained by personal effort.
Hence the first candidate for reform must be direct taxation — particularly Income Tax, which bears most heavily on young wage-earners who have to start paying tax at a level of income far below that needed to sustain themselves and to live in hope of saving enough to enable them to marry and establish an adequate home for their children before they feel old age coming on. When I was an adolescent, my principal immediate goal was to be accepted as a responsible adult: I can hardly imagine that fundamental human nature is much different today.
Whilst accepting that Income Tax cannot be abolished overnight, the plight of the young wage-earners who currently see no prospect of ever owning their own homes or raising their own families should take priority over all other considerations. Parent poverty can best be alleviated not by shaving a penny or two off the basic rate of Income Tax but by a generous upward adjustment of personal allowances to a level which would enable school-leavers in their first employment not only to become financially independent of their parents but also to start saving for their own future development. This would be the single most effective antidote to the sense of hopelessness which gives rise to vandalism, bingeing, drug-dependency, littering, petty crime, and the other adolescent misdemeanours which disfigure the public face of Britain.
In current economic conditions, I would suggest raising the personal allowance for everybody over the age of, say, fourteen to £12,000 a year. Of course, not everybody would start off earning that much: but it would give everybody an incentive to earn more, get them into the habit of working for income instead of begging for it, and develop a sense of personal responsibility which they would then pass on to the children of their eventual marriage.
On marriage, individual personal allowances should be aggregated to permit a joint income of £24,000 without family liability to tax, enabling mothers whose husbands had adequate income to stay at home rearing their children as nature intended. Every child of the marriage should have a personal allowance at half the adult rate up to the age 14, at which time he or she should if desired be free to leave school and start earning. [Please refer to Education in England]
Given such a tax-free "platform", a "flat rate" of Income Tax could be set at a level calculated to enable the state or, preferably, the parish, to meet remaining economically inescapable commitments — such as providing support for "community households" for children whose parents are so irresponsible as to conceive children out of wedlock. Restoration of the stigma attached to irresponsible sexual activity should itself constitute a significant shock to public morality and reduce calls upon the reluctant generosity of the anonymous tax-payer. The same buildings could also cater for young couples too poor to afford their own accommodation, and for elderly people deprived of family support.
If the United Kingdom is to breed a sufficient number of what I call "latter-day Noahs" [see Looking Backwards and Forwards and Global Warming] it will have to forgo the sentimentality of the "nanny state" and adopt an ethos more akin to the Spartan stoicism that used to inspire the English Public School.