Policies have failed to significantly reduce inequality between rich and poor despite two decades of interventions by successive governments, according to a highly critical new report by the government’s Social Mobility Commission.
The study warns that the social and economic divisions in British society will widen even further, threatening community cohesion and economic prosperity. And it highlights new divides that have opened up in the UK, further fragmenting society – geographically, and between income groups and different generations.
Alan Milburn, chair of the commission, said that for two decades Labour and Conservative governments had not made enough progress in turning welcome political sentiments into positive social outcomes. “What is so striking about this new analysis is how divided we have become as a nation,” he said. “A new geographical divide has opened up, a new income divide has opened up and a new generational divide has opened up.” He continued, "The public mood is sour, sometimes angry," he said. "Whole tracts of Britain feel left behind. Whole communities feel the benefits of globalisation have passed them by. Whole sections of society feel they are not getting a fair chance to succeed. The growing sense that we have become an us-and-them society is deeply corrosive of our cohesion as a nation."
- Child poverty has risen in the aftermath of the recession, with about 4 million – or 30% – of young people now classified as poor.
- The divide between the attainment of rich and poor children at the age of five has only just begun to shrink despite billions of pounds of investment, and in early years education and it will take 40 years before it is closed.
- It will take 120 years before disadvantaged teenagers are as likely as their better-off counterparts to get equivalent qualifications.
- Graduate employment for disadvantaged students has “barely improved”, though widening access to university is a seen as a success for social mobility policies. In higher education, it will take about 80 years before the participation gap between students from rich and poor areas closes.
- Wages have stagnated in real terms – particularly among the young – with the poorest most affected by the resulting falling living standards. And, despite slow progress, the best-paid jobs remain “deeply elitist”.
- One-in-five people are struck on low pay, a consistently higher proportion than in similar nations.
- Income and wealth divides have become 'more acute'; between 1997 and 2017 the bottom fifth of households saw incomes increase by just over £10 a week compared with £300 for the top fifth
- The report, Time for Change, assesses government policies on social mobility from 1997 to 2017, covering the governments of Labour’s Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, as well as David Cameron and Theresa May for the Conservatives.
- Alison Garnham, chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, said the report read like “an indictment of successive governments’ failure to back struggling families with policies that would help them build better prospects”
- Kevin Watkins, chief executive of Save the Children, said: “It’s nothing short of a scandal that in this day and age, so many of our children are falling behind in their learning from the start and left to stay behind throughout their lives."