According to a report in today's Guardian, the government is planning to put more emphasis on work and employment in its strategy for ending child poverty. 'Research shows that around half of the 3 million children living in poverty have at least one parent working, but they earn too little to pull the family above the poverty line.' So 'both parents' should go to work. Stephen Timms says that the government will look at 'incentives' to achieve this. But he doesn't exclude coercion.
Timms' proposal has provoked some concern in the anti-poverty lobby. And rightly so. The proposal points up some basic moral and conceptual weaknesses in the direction of government thinking on child poverty.
Consider, first, the idea of reciprocity. This is the idea that welfare provision should be part of a social contract in which citizens contribute and get benefits in return - 'rights and responsibilities' in the New Labour jargon. The idea has two aspects to it. First, if you get support from one's fellow citizens, then, if able, one should 'do one's bit', e.g., by working. Second, if you are doing your bit, then you ought to be out of poverty: no citizen who is making a reasonable work contribution, given their capacities and circumstances, should be in poverty.
Now to apply the idea of reciprocity, we therefore have to decide what we think a 'reasonable work contribution' is for citizens of different capacity and circumstance. Concretely, how many hours of employment is it reasonable to expect a given type of household to provide society for us to say 'OK, you are doing your bit'?
Once we have answered that question, we can then ask what the tax-benefit system must look like to ensure that citizens meeting their reasonable work expectation get an income that puts them out of poverty.
However, Timms' reasoning looks to be the reverse. We look at the tax-benefit system and observe that it can't deliver on poverty unless people work a whole lot more than they already do. We then say that they will have to work a whole lot harder.
But this ignores a question that is fundamental to a serious treatment of reciprocity: Should people have to work that hard to get a decent income?
The urgency of this question becomes clearer when one sees that what is at stake here is not just reciprocity but a plausible understanding of poverty itself.
For what does it mean to be poor? To be poor is to lack the resources needed to lead a minimally decent life. But these resources aren't just a matter of income. As Robert Goodin, Tania Burchardt and other experts have recently pointed out, they also include, quite crucially, time. (See, in particular, Tania Burchardt's research on time and income poverty.)
Someone who has an income over the 'poverty line', but who has to work, say, 60 hours a week to get it, is still living in poverty because they lack the free time necessary to lead a minimally decent life.
Once one recognises this, one sees the obvious risk in responding to income poverty with the advice: 'Work more!' More work might pull the individual or family concerned out of poverty along one dimension, only to entrench them in poverty along another (the temporal) dimension.
A coherent anti-poverty policy must, therefore, start from some principles about how much free time households need to be out of temporal poverty. Once we have those principles, we can assess what might be a reasonable work contribution for a given type of household. And, once we know that, we will know what we have to do with the tax-benefit system (and/or minimum wage law) to ensure that all citizens who meet their reasonable work expectation are out of (income) poverty.
As said, the worrying thing about the Timms proposal is that it seems to work on a reverse logic: a necessary work contribution is inferred from the present limitations of the tax-benefit system without any careful regard to whether this level of contribution is itself tolerable or fair.