Race Matters

Ethnic inequalities to rise with government policy on benefits cap and apprenticeships

The Prime Minister has confirmed that he would use savings from a reduced benefit cap to fund 3 million more apprenticeships for young people.

Though some noted that this reinforces a narrative of ‘deserving’ versus ‘undeserving’ poor that has become of favoured framing for all political parties, fewer people commented on the likely impact on ethnic inequality in Britain.

According to research from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), the benefit cap is disproportionately likely to impact ethnic minorities, with 40% of those affected being black and minority ethnic (BME) people. This compares to BME people making up just 14% of the UK population, 16% of Jobseekers' Allowance claimaints, 16% of lone parents claiming income support, and 9% of those on Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).

While around 26% of those who apply for an apprenticeship are BME, just 10% of those who get apprenticeships are ethnic minorities. By way of comparison, around 20% of those between the ages of 18-25 are ethnic minorities, while unemployment rates are more than double among young ethnic minorities than among young white British people.

These policies will therefore increase ethnic inequalities. And given the Prime Minister’s framing, the suggestion is that it’s fair to disproportionately take money out of the pockets of poor ethnic minority families to pay for a policy that disproportionately benefits poor young white people.

Three points follow from this point. First is that it is very unlikely that the Prime Minister is deliberately seeking to make black people worse off and white people better off. Rather, the problem arises from twin failure: both failing to record data effectively, and promoting a narrow vision of ‘colourblindness’ in policy making. These problems are allied because we can otherwise make no sense of the government’s curious depiction of monitoring ethnicity and other equality data as ‘red tape’.

The government believes that most ethnic inequalities have disappeared, and that those that remain will disappear through fair-minded policymakers adopting a colourblind approach. The case of the benefit cap and apprenticeships - but also electoral registration, landlord checks and cutting funding to local authorities and local community organisations - all show that whatever the intention, colourblind policies often increase rather than reduce ethnic inequalities.

A second lesson from this juxtaposition of the benefit cap and apprenticeships is that we can expect the General Election campaign to implicitly frame policy and budgetary choices in terms of deserving and undeserving poor. Just as worrying, however, is the likelihood that this will extend to deserving and non-deserving people like ‘us’ and people not like us. We already see this in demands that migrants be excluded from social housing (despite existing restrictions on their access) from all parties. UKIP go further in demanding we turn away people with HIV. The possibility that the election campaign turns into an argument about who really belongs and who is a foreign interloper is a real risk that can only worsen the confidence of migrants and British-born ethnic minorities, with likely effects in their treatment by employers, the police, teachers and the wider public.

Third and lastly, there remains a very big gap between the rhetoric and ideals articulated by our leaders, and the reality of the experience for ethnic minorities and others in British society. It is certainly true that all politicians now express their strong commitment to values such as liberty, fairness, tolerance – and even equality.

Yet when it comes to considering policies to actually realise equality, these same politicians stall or reject them. We also learn that the Labour Party – 20% of whose votes are from black and Asian Britons – has been unable to find a place for any of those voters as candidates in their safest seats. And since this government came into office, proposing a seemingly innocuous race equality strategy results in being labelled a ‘Stalinist’, while querying what the government is doing to respond to the high young black male unemployment rate results in accusations of ‘segregation’.

It is incongruous to receive such formal correspondence from a government full of ministers who claim that their political hero is Nelson Mandela. Mandela did indeed have noble ideals and an amazing capacity for forgiveness. But he also advocated targeted and specific policies for black people in South Africa, and fully realised that the noble ideals of the South African Constitution needed to be matched by real measures to empower – politically and economically – a previously disadvanataged population.

As we argue elsewhere, the same apperception that lofty ideals need practical measures to make them a reality for ethnic minorities is a mark of Martin Luther King and indeed the wider leadership of the US civil rights movement. Without a corresponding mobilisation of BME and indeed white British people to end racism, and clear policies from politicians to reduce ethnic inequalities, we will continue to muddle along in a Britain where our high ideals and rhetoric stands in sharp contrast to the social, political and economic outcomes for third generation British-born ethnic minorities. In other, harsher words that Mandela and King would be unflinching in using, affirming colourblindness and denying the existence of racial inequalities makes a mockery of our principles and turns us into hypocrites when we lecture others to adopt those values.
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