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Confidence building

Monday, April 6, 2009

The following article was published on the website of Progress http://www.progressonline.org.uk/Magazine/article.asp?a=4023 

The economic situation dominates the news jobs cuts, pay freezes, reduced manufacturing and retail sales. The banks are blamed for mismanaging our money, but huge amounts of public money suddenly become available to support them. The Government appears desperate to help the rich. The ‘person on the street’ might wonder why this money wasn’t available to support the more deserving. Will the budget tackle these concerns?

People experience this economic crisis in different ways. It’s devastating for those who lose their job, have to sell their home or find themselves with negative equity. Many people, particularly pensioners, who rely on interest from savings to boost incomes, are suffering from the low rates. Others in secure jobs are finding prices have fallen, mortgages are cheaper they may well be better off. But the news is depressing; it makes people cautious about spending just at a time when the economy needs them to.

Noted US economist Robert Reich argues that there is a crisis of aggregate demand which is related to widening inequality. The rich spend a smaller percentage of their income than the poor. In the USA the proportion of national income going to the top 1% of the population has gone up from 8% to 23 %. The last time it was so skewed was just before the crash of 1929. He argues that getting more money to the poor is essential if we want to boost the economy.

At the recent Progressive Governance conference, leaders from around the world agreed that now is the time to invest in education and skills. Helping people acquire qualifications and new skills equips them to cope with change and instability. Figures show that of people in the EU who are low skilled only 48.6% are employed, for the highly skilled it’s over 80%. Investment in human capital is essential to help people not just now, but for their long term future.

Uruguay, a small country of 3 million, has high ambitions. They launched a one laptop per child programme, based on a view that any child should aspire to be a doctor, a lawyer or even the president. Robust bright green and white laptops 90% of them wifi enabled - show that every child’s education is important. It also has the happy co-incidence of illustrating to the population that the government values them, without the need of actually saying so. We need such striking ideas here.

Standards in schools are rising, but we have to close the gap between the poorest and better off communities. Family learning makes a difference; helping adults to appreciate what their children are leaning. Also it gives adults the chance to gain new skills themselves, helping the whole community value education.  This means increasing investment in education and skills, but gearing the new money toward those with no or few skills.

Why cannot we pay those suddenly without jobs to take their skills and experience to those without them, teach basic reading, writing, and maths? We could increase the numbers of those willing to teach in local church halls and community centres. In my constituency people from local estates don’t think college is for them. So no more grand education buildings that just alienate those who need the training they offer. Start where they are; provide what they want in their communities. 

And what about housing? Just because the housing market has slowed, doesn’t mean that the need for accommodation has reduced. Now could be the time to build modern prefabs, manufactured off-site and erected quickly. Large orders would make unit costs low, so either cheap to buy or cheap to rent. Rather than developing new large estates small numbers could be used as infills. They could really make a quick but long lasting positive difference to the housing situation in this country.

This budget has to be very political, clearly geared toward those who in today’s economic world feel left behind. We can help them acquire skills, help build their confidence to get a better job, even provide opportunities for good value housing. We might even provide all our children with a robust bright green and white laptop? 

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