Social mobility policies have failed to significantly reduce inequality between rich and poor despite two decades of interventions by successive governments, according to a highly critical new report.
The study by the government’s Social Mobility Commission warns that without radical and urgent reform, the social and economic divisions in British society will widen even further, threatening community cohesion and economic prosperity.
And it highlights new divides that have opened up in the UK, further fragmenting society – geographically, and between income groups and different generations.
Alan Milburn, chair of the commission, said that for two decades Labour and Conservative governments had not made enough progress in turning welcome political sentiments into positive social outcomes.
“What is so striking about this new analysis is how divided we have become as a nation,” he said.
“A new geographical divide has opened up, a new income divide has opened up and a new generational divide has opened up.”
The report highlights that:
- Child poverty has risen in the aftermath of the recession, with about 4 million – or 30% – of young people now classified as poor.
- The divide between the attainment of rich and poor children at the age of five has only just begun to shrink despite billions of pounds of investment, and in early years education and it will take 40 years before it is closed.
- It will take 120 years before disadvantaged teenagers are as likely as their better off counterparts to get equivalent qualifications.
- Graduate employment for disadvantaged students has “barely improved”, though widening access to university is a seen as a success for social mobility policies.
- Wages have stagnated in real terms – particularly among the young – with the poorest most affected by the resulting falling living standards. And, despite slow progress, the best-paid jobs remain “deeply elitist”.
The report, Time for Change, assesses government policies on social mobility from 1997 to 2017, covering the governments of Labour’s Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, as well as David Cameron and Theresa May for the Conservatives.
It concludes overall there has been “too little” progress. It says it will take decades before the divisions in education and employment narrow and cautions that many of the policies of the past are no longer fit for purpose.
Launching the report on Wednesday, Milburn warned that in the bleak post-election landscape there was a greater need than ever for improved social mobility.
“As the general election seems to demonstrate, the public mood is sour and whole tracts of Britain feel left behind.
“The growing sense that we have become an us-and-them society is deeply corrosive of our cohesion as a nation.
“These are volatile and uncertain times. When more and more people feel like they are losing out, social mobility matters more than ever before.”