Does cash or services have the biggest impact on child poverty?

We need to invest more money in eradicating child poverty, not simply shift current expenditure around.

There is a view being expressed in influential circles that the money spent on cash benefits (and tax credits) as part of the Labour government's child poverty strategy was wasted and that now it is much better to invest in services. The dominant rhetoric of the coalition government (supported by the Field and Allen Reviews and, to some extent, by Alan Milburn) is that very little was achieved despite billions of pounds being spent between 2000 and 2010, and the child poverty targets were not met. The Child Poverty Strategy (pdf) argued: “This government is committed to eradicating child poverty but recognises that income measures and targets do not tell the full story about the causes and consequences of childhood disadvantage. The previous government’s focus on narrow income targets meant they poured resources into short-term fixes to the symptoms of poverty instead of focusing on the causes. We plan to tackle head-on the causes of poverty which underpin low achievement, aspiration and opportunity across generations”. The Field Review (pdf) actually argued that investments in services should be funded by cutting child and family benefits. The chancellor immediately responded by reneging on his commitment to uprate child tax credits above the rate of inflation and instead to invest in early years for some deprived two-year-olds. James Purnell has joined the chorus and wants to freeze child benefit for 10 years in order to fund child care. Nick Pearce of IPPR has also blogged on the subject .

We need to recognise that the reduction in poverty achieved by the Labour child poverty strategy was mainly achieved by substantially increased and highly redistributive spending on cash benefits – tax credits including childcare tax credits, child benefits and educational maintenance allowances. Child poverty fell by a million. Without this extra cash it would have increased by a million. This evidence is rehearsed in Ending child poverty by 2020: progress made and lessons learned (pdf). Of course the state of the labour market, the minimum wage, and welfare to work played a part. Also extra spending on health, education and childcare helped. But the heavy lifting was done by cash transfers. The UK had the largest reduction in child poverty of any country in the OECD between the mid 1990s and 2008 - see here (pdf).

The claim that spending on services is better than spending on cash benefits may be influenced by the OECD, which publishes rather old (2007) data on spending on families with children as a proportion of GDP and break it down into spending on cash benefits, services and tax benefits. It is certainly true that this data shows that the Nordic countries have high levels of spending on services and low child poverty rates. But this is an association, not a cause. These countries have an egalitarian income distribution, high levels of parental labour market participation, high wages and, yes, heavy investment in good quality childcare. They also start with comparatively low pre transfer child poverty rates. Spending on cash benefits fell in all the Nordic countries in the 2000s and their child poverty rates increased.

The association between spending on services and child poverty is shown in Figure 1. There is a fairly weak association – thanks mainly to the Nordic countries. However there is no association between the proportion of family spending spent on services and child poverty rates or gaps.

Figure 1: Child poverty rate by spending on family services as % GDP

There is a much stronger association between spending on cash benefits and tax breaks and child poverty rates than there is with spending on services (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Child poverty rate by spending on family cash benefits and tax breaks as % GDP

In EU countries there is a stronger association between child poverty gaps than child poverty rates and spending on cash benefits and tax breaks.  There is an even stronger association between spending on cash benefits and tax breaks and the reduction in child poverty achieved by transfers. See Figure 3.

Figure 3: % reduction in child poverty by % GDP spent on cash benefits and tax breaks in EU countries

Actually, it is the level of total spending on families - cash benefits plus services plus tax breaks – that is most closely associated with child poverty. The lesson is that we need to invest in children in all sorts of different ways. Spending on childcare probably helps to increase maternal employment, enhances gender equality, and possibly also has beneficial child development outcomes. But it is probably not the best way to tackle child poverty and income inequalities. Indeed, recent analysis of EU SILC data suggests that the UK is one of the countries where childcare for children aged two or less reaches the rich better than the poor. It does not tackle the poverty of older children – except possibly in the long term. To end child poverty – and to make long term savings - we need to accept that we are going to invest more money in children; not simply shift current expenditure around. This is politically difficult – but in policy terms, and for anyone who cares about child wellbeing, necessary. To shift spending from cash benefits to services now is going to result in increased child poverty.

Jonathan Bradshaw is Professor of Social Policy at University of York and trustee of Child Poverty Action Group.


Ending child poverty could also mean long-term savings. Photograph: Getty Images
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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.