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Popular welfare for the 21st century?

In the Beveridge Lecture, delivered on 18 March 1999, Prime Minister Tony Blair committed his government to abolishing child poverty within 20 years. He concluded that the present-day welfare state is not fitted to the modern world, and laid out his vision for a welfare state for the 21st century. Blair’s vision, grounded in a particular conception of social justice, is perhaps as challenging as the blueprint laid down by Beveridge.

Ending child poverty presents Blair’s Beveridge Lecture alongside the views of some of Britain’s foremost policy analysts and commentators. This unique collection makes it possible to not only read the ideas of leading current thinkers in this critical area of policy, but also to compare them with the Prime Minister’s lecture, and to see which ideas he himself took up and in what form.

Ending child poverty is a record of not only the Lecture itself, but also of the ideas available to government and their influence on its leader at an important moment in the formation of policy. It provides a rich tapestry on analysis, insight and reflection that will, it is to be hoped, stimulate critical debate about the future shape of British welfare.

This collection is essential reading for anyone interested in the future of modern society and politics and provides an accessible handbook for undergraduate students of politics, social policy and sociology.

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The British challenge for American reform

In the UK, both Conservative and New Labour welfare strategies have been influenced by American policies. British welfare reform has continued in recent years, while American policies appear to have stagnated. What now are the lessons of British reform for America?

The welfare we want? presents a detailed and unique comparison of welfare policies in the two countries. A team of international experts outlines, compares and contrasts the reform strategies pursued in each country and summarises the results to date. The editors argue that recent American reforms have failed to address key problems but that British ideas could refresh the American policy agenda. Moreover, both systems would gain from increased transatlantic policy dialogue.

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Benefit receipt in Britain

Over the last three decades Britain has witnessed an unprecedented rise in the number of people receiving welfare benefits that has provoked fears of a growing underclass and mass welfare dependency.

The making of a welfare class? provides the first comprehensive analysis of the reasons for this growth and subjects notions of welfare dependency and the underclass to empirical test. It focuses on four principal groups of benefit recipients - children and families, retirement pensioners, disabled people, and unemployed people - and, using important new evidence, explores the relative importance of economic, demographic, institutional and normative factors in the pattern of growth.

The book addresses a phenomenon - growth in benefit recipiency - which is common to all advanced industrial countries and nowhere well understood. As a central focus of government policy and a key development in modern society, the issues explored in the book will therefore be of interest to academics and policy commentators alike.

Written in an accessible style and assuming no prior knowledge, with succinct chapters, elegant summaries and extensive use of graphics, complex arguments appear simple. A comprehensive glossary of technical terms is included. As a result, The making of a welfare class? is compulsory reading for undergraduates and postgraduate students of sociology, social policy and economics and anyone else interested in the development of modern British society and welfare policy.

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Poverty and social exclusion mean different things to different people. This ‘overidentification’ of terms is both a strength and a weakness. One advantage is that variations in interpretation can be embraced and hidden within a single word, whereas, if they were to be made explicit, they might prevent agreement and inhibit policy advance. Unfortunately the differences in the meanings attached to the term ‘poverty’ have now become so extreme within the European policy arena, with some actors denying its existence, others bemoaning its rapid growth and most concerned by the financial and fiscal implications of any coherent policy response, that its use has been shelved. For the time being social exclusion survives as a sufficiently ambiguous term to facilitate a continuing dialogue about matters that some would equate with, or, at least, include within, the concept of, poverty. However, the overidentification of terms can also lead to a degree of confusion and intellectual anarchy that prevents the possibility of measurement and analysis and, as a consequence, precludes the development of appropriate policy responses.

In his introduction to this book, Room discusses the disparate origins of the terms poverty and social exclusion.

•The concept of ‘poverty’, as used in most policy discourse, has its origins in a liberal vision prevalent in Britain in the late nineteenth century. Within this paradigm, society was viewed as a set of individuals engaged in economic competition, which resulted in some having incomes large in relation to their needs while others risked destitution. Policy aimed to ensure that those in the latter category, occupying the lowest position in the distribution of income to needs ratios, had the minimum resources necessary for survival.

•The term ‘social exclusion’ has different, French, origins. It derives from the idea of society as a status hierarchy comprising people bound together by rights and obligations that reflect, and are defined with respect to, a shared moral order. Exclusion is the state of detachment from this moral order and can be brought about by many factors, including limited income.

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On 18 March 1999, the occasion of the 750th anniversary of University College, Oxford, Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister, delivered the Beveridge Lecture in which he set out his own vision of a welfare state for the 21st century. In this lecture, reproduced here as Chapter 2, Tony Blair reflects on Beveridge the man, his times and the reforms that he initiated that were to lay the foundation for welfare in the second half of the 20th century. He goes on to consider the profound social changes that have reshaped modern society over the last 50 years and the apparent failure of the welfare policies to respond sufficiently to prevent the growth of poverty, social decay and social exclusion. The present-day welfare state, he concludes, is not fitted for the modern world. Indeed, it is seen by some to be the social problem rather than a solution to social needs. Finally, and most importantly, he articulates a new vision for the future that is perhaps as challenging as the blueprint laid down by Beveridge.

Despite the importance of Blair’s Beveridge Lecture, it is not surprising that it did not attract the attention accorded to the Beveridge Report with its detailed programme of reform that caught the popular imagination in wartime Britain and provided a glimpse of a better world to come. Competing with the war in Kosovo and the murder of a Northern Ireland civil rights lawyer, coverage of the Beveridge Lecture was very largely limited to the print medium.

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Social security – defined to include social assistance (America’s ‘welfare’) – is the great facilitator: it enables economic and social progress to be achieved, demographic and individual change to occur.

It protects the incomes and rights of individuals who suffer the consequences of the economic and social change that benefits the community as a whole. By minimising personal distress, it prevents the social unrest that might otherwise inhibit economic and social advance.

Social security provides individuals with the time and resources to adjust to new circumstances, to rebuild their lives after personal catastrophe and misfortune. It enables them to plan and to save for the future, to create personal security and financial independence.

Social security binds society together through a system of mutual obligation and sharing. By ensuring that the extremes of poverty and wealth are avoided, it fosters the personal independence and interdependence that underpins democracy. By risk-pooling and sharing, society confers individual security.

Britain led the world with the post-war Beveridge reforms: comprehensive social security (National Insurance), universal social assistance (National Assistance). Society’s safety net remains very effective by international standards, although social insurance benefits are comparatively low (Eardley, 1996). Britain is still a world leader in the provision of occupational and second tier pensions and in integrated Welfare to Work programmes.

Social security is not just a mechanism, it is a goal for society and each of its citizens. Social security helps to define and underpin individual well-being and social justice.

Social security is weakened when the sense of shared interest is lost or loosened.

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It was the commitment to end child poverty within 20 years that captured media interest in the days following the Beveridge Lecture. Before 1 May 1997, poverty had been a proscribed word in official circles for a political generation and the idea that government should or, indeed, could, do anything about it was also ridiculed. Tony Blair not only promises to eradicate child poverty, he commits himself to a timetable that could conceivably fall within an unbroken spell of Labour rule. This new policy goal was not chosen at random, it is consistent with the concept of social justice that lies at the foundation of Blair’s vision of social welfare.

Less remarked upon, but of real importance, is the emphasis given in Blair’s Lecture to transforming welfare from ‘a term of abuse’ into something ‘popular’. A necessary pre-condition for achieving the goal of eradicating childhood poverty, it could also have profound implications for both the delivery of welfare and the status accorded to welfare recipients. Welfare might become the instrument for fostering social cohesion through the language of social inclusion in the way that Beveridge foresaw it as part of post-war reconstruction.

The continuing legacy of Beveridge is indeed remarkable. Beveridge was engaged in the policy arena for so long, in so many capacities and offered so many insights, some of them contradictory (as Tony Atkinson affirms), that almost any policy prescription could be presented as being either ‘new’ or ‘old’ Beveridge. Nevertheless, Jose Harris, who knows more about Beveridge than anyone else, concludes that “the principles and assumptions woven into the fabric of the Beveridge Plan ... have a certain relevance – even an elective affinity - with some of the core ideas of New Labour”.

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