The economic tsunami resulting from the banking crisis will shape social policy for the next decade in the UK. The recession will continue to work its way through our systems and the related cuts to public services will inextricably impact on communities. The Institute of Fiscal Studies predict that between 10/11 and 19/20 average income expected to fall by seven per cent and as a result by 2020 24 per cent of children will live in relative poverty. This is the challenge that will shape the future of libraries.
Libraries have always had a bias to the poor. It sat at the heart of their founding vision. In the past fifteen years this has been rediscovered in the context of social inclusion policy. The challenge is to put this into practice at a time when libraries’ resources themselves are being savagely cut in many places.
However the prize is great: If libraries can effectively work with individuals and the communities most at risk of poverty, they can turn lives round, boost relative social mobility and even stop the newly enlarged poverty footprint in the UK becoming intergenerational. They will also demonstrate their indispensible role in UK policy. They will demonstrate that their statutory role is no whim, but recognition of how libraries make society fairer and richer, in every sense.
The evidence for libraries’ impact on poverty is compelling, particularly in combating the inequalities associated with child poverty. The Effective Provision of Preschool Education research and more recently the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children have demonstrated the power of libraries in closing the one year gap in school readiness that exists between rich and poor children and which lays the foundations for many later inequalities.
However the effectiveness of libraries against the poverty agenda is dependent on the extent to which they commit to this audience as a priority, and the extent to which they provide services which tackle poverty. Learning and literacy need to be at the heart of this approach. A simple increase in literacy which cuts the likelihood of an adult being reliant on benefits from 19 per cent to six per cent.
Libraries can deliver this if they rededicate themselves to this audience and refresh their focus on learning and literacy. Progressive universalism was a comfortable policy framework, it allowed you to continue doing everything for everybody and at the same time you could maintain that you had priorities. This is expensive and is now unaffordable. Public policy now expects targeted services, even seeing the state as provider of last resort. If libraries are challenged to prioritise and target, they need to be confident about the audience they can have the biggest impact on. This audience is frequently the poorest and most vulnerable.
Of course there are dangers for libraries with adopting an approach which focuses on poverty – services may become stigmatised, they risk losing what have become seen as core audiences. However the dangers in not proactively addressing the economic and social challenges of the next decade are much more significant.Jonathan Douglas is the Director of the National Literacy Trust