Bartek Staniszewski writes the second of Conservative Home's series on reducing demand for government. His piece is on the crucial role of housing and childcare.
Staniszewski says that “As much as 36 per cent of the government’s tax revenue is being spent on tackling the adversities that a good upbringing alleviates.” Why the term ‘good upbringing?’ Perhaps because it is nebulous. Does it mean not being in poverty, and not growing up in deprivation in a deprived area? Does it mean being brought up by both biological parents living together in harmony in the same home? Does it mean achieving good results at GCSE and A-Level? Or does it mean having the right moral values according to the middle and upper classes – values of prioritising career and money over family and place?
Staniszewski does not say where his 36% figure comes from. He refers to the government page for the Spring Budget 2023, but that lacks sufficient detail to understand the 36% figure. Social protection, personal social services, and housing and environment together make 35.5%. But social protection (social security) covers pensions and housing support for pensioners; personal social services covers social care for disability as well as social work; and housing and environment could cover all sorts of things.
Staniszewski continues with “People who grow up in supportive families are…”, which suggests that his view of a ‘good upbringing’ is something to do with parents who want and help their children to succeed - at what? At academia? At making money? What if I wanted my child to succeed at being generous, loving, and committed to family, friends and place? What if I’m a good person, but academia wasn’t my forte, so I’m stuck in low-pay jobs not because I’m a bad person but because the sorts of jobs I’d excel at don’t exist, or I can’t access them if they do? Now my children grow up in poverty and deprivation, which impacts their life chances, however ‘supportive’ I am.
“Once faced with adversities, those who grew up in better families are also more resilient to them.” But is that very informative? Is it not a little like saying that it’s easier to face bereavement if you are rich, to face a job loss if you’re not disabled, or to handle a child experimenting with cocaine if you’re not a single parent? All that is saying is that one adversity is easier than two; two is easier than three; and so on.
There’s a saying that when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. But lemonade requires a lot of water and sugar, not just lemons. If you don’t have enough necessities (water) and a decent supply of luxuries (sugar) then all you’ve got is sour lemons. Resilience may be the same. Facing one adversity is a lot easier when you not only have all that you need to survive the basics, but also have the luxury to be able to participate in and enjoy wider society.
Another saying is “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” This is manifestly untrue. Many people in the aftermath of stroke, heart attack, disabling injury or major infectious disease find that they are substantially weaker afterwards. I myself have a genetic condition, hypermobility Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, which makes my body weaker and less able to manage life. By pushing myself too hard in my early 20s, I triggered fibromyalgia. I’ve never recovered since. Overwork didn’t kill me, but it definitely weakened me, and it still does, every time I end up overdoing things. To the extent that I have 'resilience', what that means is that I have a father, brother, and brother-in-law earning decent money who all can, and do, help me out. I.e., resilience means that someone else gives me the money I need to live (justice means the government ensures I have enough to live, regardless of the wealth of my extended family).
Seneca is reported to have said that “'Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labour does the body.” It seems he’s never heard of nervous breakdowns. When I was pushing myself to complete a project before I knew I had hEDS, I was acutely aware of the psychological impact I was having on myself. I could feel myself losing resilience; like if I pushed too far – and I did – the elastic would snap, and never be elastic again. I’ve seen people break down from overwork; from caring duties; from pressure to conform to a certain group. These experiences did not make them stronger. The existence of complex PTSD also implies that adversity does not simply strengthen the mind or make people stronger.
The resilience institute says that “Resilience is defined as the psychological ability to adapt and cope with stress and “bounce back” (or forward) from negative occurrences.” But they also point out the harms of over-emphasising the value of resilience. You might persist in an unattainable goal when you should stop and redirect your energies. You might start to deny reality and your own feelings, leaving grief and distress unprocessed, and failing to address soluble problems. You might not take time to look after yourself, to rest and recuperate, and to find things to love and to make you laugh.
More concerningly, other people might use ‘resilience’ to dismiss your problems. They might tell you off for lacking ‘aspiration’ and blame you for not pursuing unattainable goals. Rather than help to end poverty, deprivation, and illness, they simply tell you that you wouldn’t be suffering in those situations if only you had more resilience. As though the problem is not the lack of necessities, but the lack of being able to cope with a lack of necessities.
Greater resilience is not necessarily a good thing. It is associated with over-inflated self-confidence and belief in one’s capacities. It may come with excessive dismissal of other people’s critiques, and a lack of self-awareness and self-analysis. Self-enhancement – improving one’s self-esteem by considering oneself to exhibit positive traits, or by crediting oneself with successes – is associated with resilience, but also with being less well socially adjusted and less honest. This is not unusual: any over-focus on one’s ‘strengths’ can lead to problems, including the over-application of that strength.
I agree with much of what Steniszewski says about needing decent homes that aren’t overcrowded; safe and homely spaces for children to socialise in; affordable housing; access to childcare. Where I disagree is that these things can be achieved by less (up-front) government. Rather, I think these things require government to impose regulations that insist on a certain minimum house size, or a neighbourhood layout that includes safe spaces to play and reduces the need for cars. And they need government investment: government spending on childcare at the true cost, not an inadequate amount that childcare providers must top-up by other means; government spending on parental leave; government spending on social housing; government spending on public parks and other green areas; government spending to ensure the shops, GPs, dentists, pharmacists, schools and so on that are needed are all within easy walking distance of a new-built community.
I’m not worried about a falling fertility rate, however. It seems a simple fact that the earth cannot sustain an ever-growing population. At some point, therefore, the fertility rate must fall. The trick is to adapt to that and a population with relatively more pensioners, not to put off the inevitable by seeking to increase the number of children.
Steniszewski wants to prioritise first-time buyers. I’m afraid the problem is much deeper than that. There are simply too many jobs that don’t lead to careers and instead see people ending, not starting, their working lives on £25k. That £25k in your 40s or 50s is simply not going to buy you a house. I say 40s or 50s, not 60s, because by their 60s these people have long since had to withdraw from the workforce due to chronic physical illness or injury induced by their work.
Then Steniszweksi wants to incentivise older people to downsize. If the mere freeing up of large amounts of capital isn’t enough incentive, I don’t know what is. But the retired people whom I know who are fortunate enough to be homeowners want to live in homes where their children and grandchildren can come to visit. The older people who ‘under-occupy’ their social housing already face an ‘incentive’ to move, through the Bedroom Tax, but they have nowhere to move to. They are punished for the failure of previous governments to allow councils to build one-bed social housing, or indeed enough social housing.
I agree with everything that Steniszweski is calling for. I agree that it will reduce downstream costs. I just disagree that it will be achieved by anything other than a bigger government.