Sure Start, a government program designed to give “children the best possible start in life", is a textbook case of a bureaucratic pet-project gone wrong. The scheme bears every hallmark of government failure: it is complex and expensive, has undergone mission creep and ultimately failed in its objectives.
The scheme started off as a means of helping the poorest families from pregnancy until the children were four years old, although has since undergone massive expansion and now covers children up to age 14 (or 16 if the child is disabled). It is, of course, a noble and worthwhile aim to help the children of the poorest families develop in a manner that does not fundamentally hinder their long-term potential. A meritocratic, mobile (and so prosperous) society requires that people from all income levels are able to succeed, and so, as a society, we ought to take steps to remove barriers to social mobility. There is nothing wrong, then, with the desire to minimise the disadvantages suffered by children of the poorest families. However, we cannot judge government projects on their intentions; we must look at their results.
Unsurprisingly, Sure Start has been a categorical failure when it comes to producing desired results. A report commissioned by the government found that money had been wasted on bureaucracy and has seen resources redistributed away from the poorest towards the middle class, whilst a study by the University of Hull found that the scheme has failed ethnic minorities. Middle class mothers are using the scheme to access cheap childcare (and famously to pay for taxi fares), whilst studies have found that children from disadvantaged backgrounds living in Sure Start areas are adversely affected by the scheme.
Yet despite all these failings, and despite the £6 billion of taxpayers’ money that has already been spent, the Daily Mail reports (currently not online) that the government has just announced another £4 billion of funding. This is typical of a government attitude which believes that any problem can be solved by throwing more taxpayers’ money at it. If a scheme is failing it must be because it is under-funded, not because it creates perverse incentives and relies on bureaucratic competence: not because it is fundamentally flawed. A government attitude that refuses to tackle institutional failings, but just relies on spending more of our money.
If government really wanted to help the poorest people it should take a long and serious look at the tax and benefits system. It is ludicrous to tax the poorest people, channel that money through layers of bureaucracy, where vast amounts of it will only be wasted and used to line bureaucrats’ pockets, and then give it back to poor people in the guise of some politician’s latest headline grapping wheeze. Better, surely, to allow the poorest people to keep more of their own income in the first place through cutting their taxes. The annual gross salary of a minimum wage worker is about £10,250; the tax free allowance for next year will be £5,225. Now, the principle behind any minimum wage is surely that it is the minimum level of income that the state decides an individual can live on. Why, then, is the state taxing £5,000 of income that it has already decreed that the individual cannot live without? Making the first £10,250 of income tax free would do more to help the children of the poorest people than any overly complicated bureaucratic project, for not only is it immoral that the state confiscates income it deems vital, but it also acts as a crippling disincentive to work. The marginal tax rates on the poorest families are such that often it makes absolutely no economic sense to leave welfare and start work; it makes absolutely no economic sense to bring up children in a stable long term relationship. Government welfare schemes and ludicrous tax codes our hurting the very people they were designed to help.