When attempting to discuss issues such as the ones posed in the question it is important to understand that although presented as a strictly singular comparison we are actually dealing with not one but two types of equality. The first is social equality, linked with anti-poverty policies, and the second is equality of opportunity, coupled with improving access to education. Examples will be based upon the British welfare system explaining how policies of both anti-poverty and improving access to education affect equality within British society. Moreover, through the course of this essay, the aim will be to show which contributes more to equality: anti-poverty policies or improved access to education.
With regard to anti-poverty policies and their influence on equality, a simple definition of social equality is required to fully discuss the issue. Therefore in this situation social equality is not absolute but rather a degree of equalisation. An example of degree of equalisation would be to define a minimum level of wealth, below which nobody should be allowed to fall, and a maximum level of wealth, above which no one is allowed to rise. (Fitzpatrick 2001: 22) This is simply saying that rather than try and have perfect social equality, aim for a comparative social equality. As well as the definition of equality it is also important to define poverty as well. Therefore the definition of poverty that will be used is that it means not having enough materially, socially and emotionally to sustain oneself. It is important that we understand what is meant by both terms and also realize that they are interrelated before attempting to answer the question.
There are many anti-poverty policies in Britain including reforms such as the New Deals for the unemployed, the minimum wage and the Sure Start Programmes, as well as numerous others. Fitzpatrick wrote that “a welfare system is defined as a socio-economic system that employs the principle of welfare in effecting social change; a welfare state is defined here as a welfare system within which the state plays a central role in driving such change forward.”(Fitzpatrick: 2001: 3), by this he was trying to highlight that state provided welfare was undeniably key to creating social equality. In Britain for example the welfare system encompasses all plans, for example council housing, unemployment benefits and child benefits. All of the policies that have been mentioned contribute to the creation of equality as they attempt to eradicate some of the problems that are keeping poor people from escaping poverty. Furthermore, these policies aim to stop multiple disadvantages from taking effect on individuals. However anti-poverty policies only aim to relieve poverty and avoid the issue of helping the poor escape poverty. Thus it is important to discuss the equality of opportunity, which is an inherent part of policies aiming to improve access to education.
When discussing improved access to education and its effect on equality we do not mean the social equality, as described when discussing anti-poverty policies, but rather equality of opportunity thus it is important to have a definition of what is meant by equality of opportunity. Hence for the purposes of this essay equality of opportunity means that each person will have the same chances in life, not merely their working life but their entire life, irrespective of race, religion or gender.
There is an overwhelming sensation that too much emphasis has been placed on the equality of outcome and not on the equality of opportunity. This point is supported when Gordon Brown claims, ‘For too long we have dealt only with the consequences of poverty and inequality and not with their causes – unemployment, lack of skills and education and an unreformed welfare state. For too long therefore we have used the tax and benefit system to compensate people for their poverty rather than doing something more fundamental – tackling the root causes of poverty and inequality…That is why the road to equality of opportunity starts not with tax rates but with jobs, education and the reform of the welfare state and redistributing existing resources efficiently and equitably.’ (Gordon Brown MP, New Labour and Equality, The Second John Smith Memorial Lecture, 19 April 1996.) As Gordon brown states a fundamental issue in the argument of equality of opportunity is improving access to education.
In 1988 the Education Reform Act (ERA) was implemented, the ERA had a three key features, first it’s innovative approach on both compulsory and further and higher education, second removed schools from local governments jurisdiction and turned them into business concerns, and finally introduced a national curriculum. (Alcock, Erskine and May 2001:294-295) The ERA coupled with mandatory education for all children under the age of 16 both added to the furthering of equality of opportunity. By turning schools into business concerns the ERA managed to appeal to a fundamental response within capitalism, the desire for profit. In order for a school to profit it must do well and therefore improve its standards. It must also be stated that other reforms that made it possible for children without means to go to school are vital to the improved access to education. In addition, these improvements to the access of education contribute to equality because with the opportunity of education comes the belief that it is possible for someone to work their way out of the inequality under which they live through meritocracy and dedication.
In response to the original question it seems that the answer is complex, and must be divided into two parts. The first part would be that anti-poverty policies aim to help the poor break free of poverty and thus contribute to equality in that the aim is to lessen the gap between the rich and the poor, by providing financial and other help to the poor to get them out of poverty. However, it seems that true answer is that improved access to education contributes more to equality in that it attacks the cause of the problem and thus is an attempt at a long-term solution, rather than an attempt that merely passes the same problem on to the next generation. With anti-poverty policies there is no focus on the causes of inequality, thus it does not provide any escape from poverty, as people will merely get caught in the same poverty traps.
In conclusion this essay shows that both anti-poverty policies and improved access to education contribute to equality but they both focus on different types of equality. Therefore it must be stated that the best plan would be to incorporate both aspects into social policy. By dealing with both poverty and education, social policy does not limit itself to either the cause or the outcome of inequality but essentially focuses on both aspects. In essence the aim would be to prevent multiple disadvantages, so that a child growing up on income support would have the same opportunity to education, as a child who needed no support, thereby hopefully breaking the cycle and not needing income support when working for themselves.
It is neither possible nor desirable to have a utopian society in which everyone is equal and therefore identical, but rather it is ideal to have a comparatively equal society. If an entirely equal society is not foreseeable then the best option would obviously be to attempt policy-making that aims to rectify present poverty but also, through educational reforms, tackle the causes of poverty; at least then a relative equality would exist. Finally, even though improved access to education contributes more to equality, due to the very nature of society it is impossible to avoid the fact that improved access to education would only work if poverty policies also existed, so that comparative equality could be possible both in the here and now and in the future.
Abercombie and Warde et al. (1998): “Contemporary British Society” 3rd ed., Polity Press
Alcock, P. (1997) “Understanding Poverty” 2nd ed., Palgrave
Alcock, Erskine, May; (2001) “The Student’s Companion to Social Policy”, Blackwell Publishers
Blakemore, K. (2001) “Social Policy an Introduction”, Open University Press
Drake, R. (2001) “The Principals of Social Policy”, Palgrave
Fitzpatrick, T. (2001) “Welfare theory: an Introduction”, Palgrave
Franklin, J. (1998) “Social Policy and Social Justice”, Polity Press
Gordon Brown MP, New Labour and Equality, The Second John Smith Memorial Lecture, 19 April 1996