Social policy: a vital partner in any inclusive growth strategy

Social policy needs to be seen as a partner in, not just one part of inclusive growth

Hannah Lambie-MumfordPeople are at the centre of the economy. This is of course an obvious statement in practical terms but, in the age of austerity and rising inequality and in-work poverty, it is clearer than ever that the current political economic model over looks this premise, in any meaningful moral sense.  The inclusive growth agenda provides a unique opportunity to reconnect people with the economy and build a fairer, more equitable society.  As we work towards this, however, social policy will necessarily need to play a central role; keeping focus on the needs and aspirations of all people, especially the most vulnerable.

Social policy focuses on people and their wellbeing and looks particularly at the state’s role in ensuring it. Whilst the question of the role of the state in creating and protecting a better society for all is not a fashionable one right now, it is one that nonetheless should take centre stage in any notion of inclusive growth.  The state can hold other actors accountable and ensure all stakeholders take their share of responsibility.  Social policy is an essential engine in its own right and in an inclusive growth agenda it should be seen to form one of the key bedrocks of a progressive society.  Ultimately, social policy needs to be seen as a partner in, not just one part of inclusive growth.

Over the last several decades social policy has been slowly but surely marginalised and maligned as part of neoliberalising policy shifts which have also been facilitated by contemporary notions of the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’. Meaningful and impactful social policy has been sacrificed with damaging results.  Rising levels of homelessness, inequality and food bank use is symptomatic of the double impact that has been felt: economic marginalisation through changing, insecure and low paid work and the absence of an adequate social safety net.  What we have seen emerge in this context is the rise of a system of increasingly privatised risk and care.  Individuals are blamed for their own socio-economic circumstances and left to fend for themselves and their families or to turn to ad hoc charitable initiatives when all else fails.  Austerity politics has continued a recent trend which has shifted focus away from structures as the most important determinants of poverty and inequality.  At the same time, the importance of treating care as a structural and public good has also been undermined, along with the sense that we have a duty to others and that the state has a progressive role to play in facilitating this.

This has all led to a hollowing out of specific social policies: reduced and increasingly conditioned social security; decreasing social housing stocks; cuts to children’s services; cuts to community facilities; a funding crisis in social care for the elderly; and cuts to education funding. The social impact of this move away from progressive social policies looms large over any prospect of an inclusive economy.

Harnessing the legacy of 70 years of social policy practice and research will be vital to the success of an inclusive growth agenda. Those most vulnerable and most excluded have to be at the centre of inclusive growth and strong independent social policy is the best way to hold any (inclusive) growth agenda accountable to that notion.

As we look to initiate meaningful moves towards inclusive growth, social policy will help to promote a focus on many urgent questions, but four will be particularly important.

What does a progressive safety net look like?

People will almost inevitably encounter times of transition and unemployment, even in an ‘inclusive’ economic model. In those instances, what form will social protection take?  What can we learn from current trials of Universal Basic Income?  What will rights and entitlements look like and how will they be enshrined and enacted?  How will the state guarantee them?  And what role will other sectors take?

How can social institutions promote inclusive growth?

Social institutions will play an important role in inclusive growth, both in terms of facilitating access to the labour market and promoting wellbeing. To these ends we will need to address such questions as, how will education and early years support need to be reformed to provide every child with the best life chances?  How can childcare be improved (from early years through to secondary level) to enable carers to participate in the labour market?  What community facilities are needed to promote healthy, sociable and independent living for all?  What does progressive health and social care policy look like?  And how do they intersect with enabling carers to access employment?

How can inclusive growth promote wellbeing for all?

Social policy also promotes a focus on those outside of the labour market, and will hold an inclusive growth agenda particularly accountable to the wellbeing of all.  How well the most vulnerable in society will be cared for, and their wellbeing maximised, will be the litmus test for the success of any inclusive growth strategy.  To this end we must at the outset ask how to best promote wellbeing for our children?  And those who are sick or elderly?  And how can those with disabilities best be supported?  How will we ensure gender and racial equality in the context of inclusive growth as well?

How do we take account of the role of place?

In the context of inclusive growth we will need to be conscious of enabling the inclusion of both people and (through) the places in which they live. Place can form important barriers to social participation and inclusion and to this end we will need to ask such questions as: what do adequate and affordable public transport systems look like, that promote both social and environmental wellbeing? How can we promote more affordable, healthy local food landscapes?  And how can we ensure that everyone lives in a high standard of secure, well heated and well equipped housing?

The inclusive growth agenda provides an important opportunity to re-write and re-affirm the social contract. In discussions of inclusive growth, social policy is often referred to as an important element or dimension.  But its role is much more than being one of several key components.  Social policy will need to be seen as a vital, independent partner in any inclusive growth agenda.  It can hold the agenda accountable to, and help it work towards, the wellbeing of all, including the most vulnerable and marginalised.

Hannah’s blog is one of ten contributions in the new report ‘The State of the Debate 2017’ published by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Inclusive Growth which is available to download here.