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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Wrists, knees, terrible rages – I felt overwhelmed when Barry came to see me

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state.

To begin with, it seemed that Barry’s wrists were the problem. He told me about the pain he was experiencing, the pins and needles that came and went in his hands. I started to examine him. His palms were calloused, his fingers thick and stubby, veterans of the heavy work he’d undertaken throughout his 57 years. Even as I assessed this first problem, he mentioned his knees. I moved on to look at those. Then it was his back. I couldn’t get to grips with one thing before he veered to the next.

I teach my registrars to be aware how a consultation is making them feel: that can give valuable clues to the patient’s own emotional state. Barry was making me feel overwhelmed, the more so as I learned that he’d been experiencing all these problems for years.

“Why are you coming to see me about them now,” I asked, “rather than six months ago – or in six months’ time?”

“I need some time off, doc.”

There was something about the way he wouldn’t meet my gaze. And again, that feeling of being overwhelmed.

“What’s going on at work?” I asked him.

His tone hardened as he told me how he’d lost his temper a couple of days earlier. How one of the others had been winding him up, and something inside him had snapped, and he’d taken a swing at his workmate and landed a punch.

Barry had walked out and hadn’t been back. I tried to find out if he’d heard from his boss about the incident, if he knew what was likely to happen next.

He told me he didn’t care.

We talked some more. I learned that he’d been uncharacteristically short-tempered for months; his partner was fed up with being shouted at. Sleep had gone to pot, and Barry had taken to drinking heavily to knock himself out at night. He was smoking twice his usual amount. Men like Barry often don’t experience depression as classic low mood and tearfulness; they become filled with rage and turn in on themselves, repelling those closest to them in the process.

Depression is a complex condition, with roots that can frequently be traced right back to childhood experiences, but bouts are often precipitated by problems with relationships, work, money, or health. In Barry’s case, the main factor turned out to be his job. He’d been an HGV driver but at the start of the year his company had lost its operator’s licence. To keep the business afloat, his boss had diversified. Barry hated what he now had to do. He was now a “catcher”.

I didn’t know what that meant. Getting up at the crack of dawn, he told me, driving to some factory farm somewhere, entering huge sheds and spending hours catching chickens, thousands upon thousands of them, shoving them into crates, stashing the crates on a lorry, working under relentless pressure to get the sheds cleared and the birds off to the next stage of the food production chain.

“It’s a young man’s game,” he told me. “It’s crippling me, all that bending and catching.”

It wasn’t really his joints, though. Men like Barry can find it hard to talk about difficult emotion, but it was there in his eyes. I had a sudden understanding: Barry, capturing bird after panicking bird, stuffing them into the transport containers, the air full of alarmed clucking and dislodged feathers. Hour after hour of it. It was traumatising him, but he couldn’t admit anything so poncey.

“I just want to get back to driving.”

That would mean landing a new job, and he doubted he would be able to do so, not at his age. He couldn’t take just any old work, either: he had to earn a decent wage to keep up with a still sizeable mortgage.

We talked about how antidepressants might improve his symptoms, and made a plan to tackle the alcohol. I signed him off to give him some respite and a chance to look for new work – the one thing that was going to resolve his depression. But in the meantime, he felt as trapped as the chickens that he cornered, day after soul-destroying day.

Phil Whitaker’s novel “Sister Sebastian’s Library” will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt