Poverty of forethought

December 26, 1997

DAVID Walker's account of the differences in academe over anti-poverty policy (THES, December 12) is not entirely accurate.

The letter to the Financial Times from 54 professors of social policy and sociology did not take the government to task "for having failed to increase benefit payments". After only five months in office, such criticism would be premature. What concerned the signatories was the signal from new Labour that better benefits are simply not on its agenda.

The letter made clear that we support the government's objective of opening up opportunities through education and paid work. The point we were making was that this is not inconsistent with improving benefit levels. Indeed, research indicates that those living on inadequate benefits will be poorly placed to seize these opportunities.

Moreover, we have to address the very real hardship experienced by those who, for a variety of reasons, will not be able to move from "welfare to work". There is now a mountain of evidence to demonstrate that benefit levels, especially for those with children, are inadequate to meet needs.

In dismissing our calls for improved benefit levels, is the London School of Economics group disputing that evidence? Without parallel redistribution through the tax-benefit system to tackle the gross inequalities inherited from the previous government, the work of the Social Exclusion Unit will be handicapped.

Personally, I have no problems with the term "social exclusion". It encourages a more multi-dimensional approach and one that focuses on the processes and institutions that serve to exclude those at the bottom of society. It is certainly preferable to pejorative and inaccurate terms such as "the underclass".

The danger arises if we lose sight of the very real poverty associated with social exclusion and if we equate inclusion purely with paid work, without reference to wider inequalities of power and resources.

Ruth Lister

Professor of social policy Loughborough University

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