Figures published by the House of Commons library highlight the seriousness of the challenge in reducing welfare costs. They show just one cost of social breakdown within communities. But to get caught up in the furore over the cost to the taxpayer of such large welfare payments completely misses the point.
Poverty means many things to many people. Money is essential, there is no escaping this. But money without education, without family structures and good parenting, without access to work or the support to prepare someone for work, without proper drug and alcohol treatment programmes where the bar of success is overcoming the addiction – this money is wasted.
Add into the mix crippling repayments of short-term loans to unregulated lenders, who offer the only available access to “credit”, and the area is not only in decline, it is at the bottom.
So, what do we do? Accept this or address this? Too many are quick to write people off, especially in communities such as these. And this number is growing, too, as times are hard across much of society and, after all, charity begins at home.
But to ignore them would be wrong. Not just morally, but also economically.
Getting people into work must be the key and for many a high degree of support will be required first to move them into work and next to keep them in work.
But what about all the other factors affecting these communities?
It is essential that support to families is prioritised, otherwise generation upon generation will be raised with no knowledge of work, a lack of foundational parenting skills and children being robbed of a good start in life. Early intervention is not simply a good idea but essentia,l as it transforms outcomes for children later in life and subsequently reduces costs to the government.
Why are these communities so badly served by their schools? Transforming our schools must be high up there in prioritising support. Good schools need good teachers, good heads and good governors.
But why is this not the case, and where is the additional support so often needed? Academies in England aim for excellence and get there – fast. Local education authorities need to learn equally fast.
And addictions must be met with programmes that offer a way out – not a substitute but a chance to become clean, sober and free from the dependency that is wrecking lives.
These challenges are not for the faint-hearted and will take time and political will to see through for the long haul. The voluntary sector has a lead role to play here.
These figures on benefit payments, as useful as they are, can mask the real problems. Let us not once again be drawn into a debate solely about money.
Eliminate the poverty of aspiration and hope and you will see the cost of welfare fall as never before.
• Gavin Poole is executive director of the Centre for Social Justice.