Time to rethink Beveridge for the modern era?
This November marks the 80th anniversary of the Beveridge report, which laid the foundations for our modern public services and our approach to employment and the labour market. My new book – ‘Want’ – takes this moment to reflect on Beveridge’s goals and on the institutions he helped establish, and asks ‘Is it time to reboot Beveridge?’ Beveridge identified five giants that needed to be overcome to enable social progress: Want (or poverty), Idleness (unemployment), Disease, Ignorance and Squalor (poor housing). He aimed to establish norms and services to deal with each of these: the National Health Service, education and employment services and social security system.
We have undoubtedly come a very long way since the post-war era in which he worked. These institutions have proved remarkably resilient, but they are increasingly unable to meet the modern versions of the giants they were intended to slay.
The book starts by laying out who is now trapped ‘in want’ in our society. The main groups in this position today are families with children, usually with at least one parent in work and disabled people and carers. The massive fall in poverty among pensioners is a public policy achievement we can be proud of, but now their poverty rate is rising again. And the future is looking increasingly bleak with trends in health, aging, housing and saving which are likely to pull more and more pensioners into poverty in future decades. As we teeter on the brink of another recession, we should also be particularly worried young people from Black, Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds, who tend to be hit hardest by recessions and face worse and longer ‘scarring’ effects than other groups.
Just as the makeup of those stuck in poverty has changed, the drivers of their situation have evolved, and our public services are not designed to meet these new challenges.
Our education system works well to ensure most people are literate and numerate but is terrible at enabling adults to skill up and reskill as old jobs disappear and new career paths open up.
The NHS efficiently prevents illness through immunisations and fixes broken legs – since communicable disease in cities and wartime or industrial accidents were the major concerns for post-war policymakers. But the bulk of today’s health problems are chronic physical conditions such as diabetes or mental health difficulties such as depression and anxiety, which our health system struggles to respond to.
The main labour market challenge in Beveridge’s time was mass unemployment, but today it is poor-quality jobs and underemployment. Parents are hemmed in by poor quality jobs, high rents, inadequate childcare and transport and with little access to useful training. Employment services work efficiently to move healthy people, able to work full time without many caring duties, into jobs speedily. But they are far less effective at helping those already in work to access better quality jobs or higher pay. Nor are most very good at supporting disabled people, carers or single parents to find decent work with the right flexibility or helping employers redesign jobs to open them up to the growing proportion of the workforce who need some form of flex.
The book therefore charts a course towards a new settlement. It argues for a reimaging of work, putting quality, security and progression at its heart, backed up by a new generation of public services, the re-establishment of social security and modernisation of our approach to regulating consumer markets and taxing wealth.
‘Giants: a new Beveridge report’ is available to buy online and at all good bookshops:
Article author: Helen Barnard, @Helen_Barnard
Helen Barnard is Associate Director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) and Director of Research and Policy at Pro Bono Economics. Helen is a leading national expert on poverty, inequality and social policy. Her extensive body of written work and regular media contributions have covered poverty, destitution, labour markets, housing and social security. Helen is a Social Metrics Commissioner and member of the Poverty Strategy Commission. She is also a trustee of the National Centre for Social Research.