Progress in tackling poverty is set to stall owing to entrenched inequalities in British society, according to a study published on Wednesday.

The decidedly mixed results of Labour’s decade-long drive to create a more equal society may be “as good as it gets for some time to come”, the study finds.

Deep-seated economic and social pressures “may make it even more difficult to achieve egalitarian objectives over the next decade”, its lead author says – and that is aside from the effects of the recession.

Exhaustive analysis of the plethora of Labour initiatives on inequality since 1997 shows “a complex and nuanced” outcome, according to the study, led by John Hills, professor of social policy at the London School of Economics.

The 1980s and earlier 1990s showed that the laisser faire approach – which held that rising overall living standards would “trickle down” to those at the bottom – “did not work”, the study says. But “the last decade has shown that a more interventionist policy of ‘pump up’ is hard” – and hard to sustain.

Child and pensioner poverty has fallen, but health inequalities have continued to widen. Exam results have improved fastest in poorer schools and some of the gaps between rich and poor areas have narrowed. But the same percentage of 16 to 18- year-olds is apparently doing nothing – not in education, employment or training – as a decade ago.

Even where progress has been made, some key initiatives have stalled or even gone into reverse since 2004.

The outcome “will disappoint those who might have hoped that a Labour government in power for over a decade would decisively reverse the gaps in society that had widened over the previous two decades”, said Prof Hills, director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Exclusion. But whichever government is in power, the gains that have been made may now be “as good as it gets for some time to come”, he said.

New pressures threaten to send progress into reverse, such as the rising costs associated with an ageing society. Treasury forecasts imply that most cash benefits and tax credits, on which the working and non-working poor rely most heavily, will rise only in line with prices – that will widen the gap with those who have decent earnings.

Inheritances are getting bigger – and they go disproportionately to people who are already better off, and to more of such people than in the past. Some changes that widened the steps on the social and economic ladder, such as the recession of the early 1980s, are still working their way through, making the ladder still harder to climb. And it will be difficult to introduce any form of carbon tax or credit without disadvantaging at least some of the less well-off.

Against that, the gains that at least in theory should emerge from Sure Start, “early years” and other education initiatives, alongside the reduction in child poverty, have yet to filter through in terms of teenage and adult outcomes.

Labour’s policies have had an impact, the study finds. “Many things were tried, and most worked. The problem is that the scale of the action was often small in relation to the underlying inequalities, and the momentum gained by the middle of the period had often been lost by the end of it.”

But as public spending increases became less generous after 2003, and overall progress on inequality slowed or stalled, it is clear that the “politics of redistribution with growth are far easier than those of redistribution without growth”.

One big change is that all political parties now acknowledge the importance of poverty and social exclusion, the report notes.

David Cameron, the Conservative leader, has pledged to both “measure” and “act” on relative poverty.

Attitudes to welfare have hardened (% who agree)
Benefits for unemployed are too low and cause hardshipMost unemployed people could find a job if they really wanted oneThere is one law for the rich and one for the poor
Source: LSE from government and polling data

Towards a More Equal Society. Edited by Hills, Sefton and Stewart. Policy Press.

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