"The right test for our policies is how they help the most disadvantaged in society, not the rich."
David Cameron, Built to Last, March 2006
Yesterday brought the welcome news that child poverty fell to its lowest level since 1986 during Labour's final year in power, from 22 per cent to 20 per cent. The party missed its target of halving child poverty by 2010 but it's some achievement that the measure, which tripled under Margaret Thatcher from one in nine children to one in three (the worst in Europe), fell at all during the deepest recession since 1945.
Data from the Office for National Statistics shows that child poverty, which stood at 26 per cent in 1997 when Tony Blair became prime minister, fell to 20 per cent in 2009-2010. The figure is not the result of a general fall in median income.
As Tim Nichols of the Child Povery Action Group notes at Left Foot Forward: "The headline poverty mark is 60 per cent median income, so if median income falls, so does the poverty line, leaving some people who were just below it now just above it. But median income actually rose slightly." Gordon Brown's tax credits may have been derided as hopelessly complex and bureaucratic, but the facts show that they got the money where it was needed most.
Today's release from the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests that George Osborne's decision to reduce state benefits will have the reverse effect. The IFS warns that child poverty will increase by roughly 300,000 by 2013-2014, largely due to "cuts to the generosity of benefits and tax credits by the coalition government". It's a finding that should set alarm bells ringing in Downing Street.
Cameron and George Osborne have chosen, against the judgement of several of their colleagues, to claim that their austerity package is a "progressive" one. Should poverty increase on their watch (as it is now certain to), they will stand accused of being not only unfair, but insincere. It was Cameron, after all, who made the Rawls-like declaration that "the right test for our policies is how they help the most disadvantaged in society" and not the wealthy.
A year later he promised: "We can make British poverty history, and we will make British poverty history." More recently, he pledged that the Budget and the Spending Review would not result in "any increase in child poverty".
There are plenty on the right who have urged the coalition to shift the goalposts and reject the internationally recognised definition of poverty (Imran Hussain, head of policy at the Child Poverty Action Group, defended this definition on The Staggers last year). For instance, Neil O'Brien, the director of Policy Exchange, has argued: "The problem with what the IFS is saying is that the measure they use isn't an indicator of real poverty; it's a measure of inequality.
"It defines 'poverty' as being below 60 percent of the average income. This is a hangover from the Gordon Brown era. Real poverty isn't the same as inequality. The IFS's definition would mean that there are actually more people in poverty in Britain today than there are in Poland."
But the government, to its credit, has so far refused to abandon the relative measure of child poverty. When Cameron claimed that the Spending Review would not increase child poverty, he used the same definition as Gordon Brown. He may soon wish he hadn't.