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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Jeremy Corbyn's opponents are going down a blind alley on tuition fees

The electoral pool they are fishing in is shallow – perhaps even non-existent. 

The press and Labour’s political opponents are hammering Jeremy Corbyn over his party's pledge/ambition/cruel lie to win an election (delete depending on your preference) to not only abolish tuition fees for new students, but to write off the existing debts of those who have already graduated.

Labour has conceded (or restated, again, depending on your preference) that this is merely an “ambition” – that the party had not pledged to wipe out existing tuition fee debt but merely to scrap fees.

The party’s manifesto and the accompanying costings document only included a commitment to scrap the fees of students already in the system. What the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are claiming as a pledge is the following remark, made by Jeremy Corbyn in his Q&A with NME readers:

“First of all, we want to get rid of student fees altogether. We’ll do it as soon as we get in, and we’ll then introduce legislation to ensure that any student going from the 2017-18 academic year will not pay fees. They will pay them, but we’ll rebate them when we’ve got the legislation through – that’s fundamentally the principle behind it. Yes, there is a block of those that currently have a massive debt, and I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that, ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off, or some other means of reducing that debt burden. I don’t have the simple answer for it at this stage – I don’t think anybody would expect me to, because this election was called unexpectedly; we had two weeks to prepare all of this – but I’m very well aware of that problem. And I don’t see why those that had the historical misfortune to be at university during the £9,000 period should be burdened excessively compared to those that went before or those that come after. I will deal with it.”

Is this a promise, an aspiration or a target? The answer probably depends on how you feel about Jeremy Corbyn or fees policy in general. (My reading, for what it’s worth, is that the full quote looks much more like an objective than a promise to my eyes but that the alternative explanation is fair enough, too.)

The more interesting question is whether or not there is an electoral prize to be had, whether from the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats, for hammering Labour on this topic. On that one the answer is open and shut: there really isn’t one.

Why not? Because the evidence is clear: that pledging to abolish tuition fees largely moves two groups of voters: students who have yet to graduate and actually start paying back the fees, and their parents and grandparents, who are worried about the debt burden.

There is not a large caucus of fee-paying graduates – that is, people who have graduated and are earning enough to start paying back their tuition fees – who are opposed to the system. (We don’t have enough evidence but my expectation is that the parents of people who have already graduated are also less fussed. They can see that their children are not crippled by tuition fee debt, which forms a negligible part of a graduate’s tax and living expenses, as opposed to parents who are expecting a worrying future for their children who have yet to graduate.)

Put simply, there isn’t a large group of people aged 21 or above voting for Corbyn who are that concerned about a debt write-off. Of those that are, they tend to have an ideological stance on the value of a higher education system paid for out of general taxation – a stance that makes it much harder for the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats to peel those votes off.

The whole thing is a bit of a blind alley for the parties of the centre and right. The Tory difficulty at this election wasn’t that they did badly among 18-21s, though they did do exceptionally badly. With the exception of the wave year of 1983, they have always tended to do badly with this group. Their problem is that they are doing badly with 30-45s, usually the time in life that some younger Labour voters begin to vote Conservative, largely but not exclusively because they have tended to get on the property ladder.

Nowadays of course, that cohort, particularly in the south of England, is not getting on the property ladder and as a result is not turning blue as it ages. And that’s both a bigger worry and a more lucrative electoral target for Labour’s opponents than litigating an NME interview.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.