Why aren't we more outraged about child poverty?

When you talk about child poverty, you're essentially talking about fairness.

In a hall in East London, the Reverend Giles Fraser, formerly of St Paul’s Cathedral and now of St Mary’s, Newington, has a question for a small group of local teenagers, all aged around 15 or 16. 

“Fifty-two per cent of children in this borough live in poverty. What do you think is the average salary of people who work here?” he asks.

The guesses range from £10,000 to £18,000.

“All wrong,” he replies. “It’s £58,000. Because of Canary Wharf.”

Fraser’s been asked by the local council to find out what local children think is fair and unfair about the borough. We don’t tend to hear the voices of normal kids from the rough parts of town in the mainstream media - we tend only to hear from the extremes (the famous, or the ones being glowered at by Ross Kemp because they're part of a Growing Gang Problem). It’s a shame really, because the things they have to say are pretty interesting. After spending a few hours with them, I made a list of some of the things they find unfair:

- They think that when they put their address on their CV, it makes potential employers less likely to consider them, and that’s not fair. They don’t like the fact that their area is known as a place where there were riots. They don’t like the fact that when they go to places like Canary Wharf it’s opulent and gleaming; the polar opposite of the scruffy houses near Brick Lane where they live. 

- They don’t think it’s fair that old people in Tower Hamlets have to live in bad housing association accommodation. They’d like to volunteer to help them, but they don’t know how.

- They don’t think it’s fair that other kids in London boroughs have more facilities, parks and open spaces. They think it’s because those boroughs have better local government. 

- They don’t think it’s fair that people who work for the council; bus drivers and the like, are constantly rude to them. One boy: “These people are supposed to be public servants but the problem is they don’t see us as members of the public.”

- They don’t think it’s fair that their streets are scary. They’d like there to be more monitoring of places like bus stations, because gangs and drug addicts worry them.

- They don’t think it’s fair that they themselves often stereotype other young people - e.g. there’s a tendency to think someone’s  a “chav” just because he’s wearing a hoodie. One white kid, with a really thick East End accent, says: “Young people often think things like all Asian kids act the same: it’s bang out of order, and that’s mostly because of things put forward by adults in the media,” at which point most of the kids - the majority of them Asian - look at me accusingly, and I take a sudden interest in my shoes.

The thing that got me about this list - and there were a load of other issues  - was that I honestly don’t think I’d have said any of them when I was their age. I had a middle-middle class upbringing in a largely lower-middle class town, and was accordingly insulated from the twin concepts of what was fair and what wasn’t. 

I wasn’t scared of going out on the streets, I didn’t feel like public servants were in any way opposed to me, I didn’t think my postcode would have any impact on a job application, and so on. I just didn’t feel like I had it much better or worse than anyone else. A bit later, with the benefit of hindsight, I realised I did. But the point is, I don’t think it’s fair that none of these things should have impacted on me growing up, while these kids should be worrying about all of them at once. Because frankly, childhood’s tough enough.

The issue here is one of poverty - in some cases absolute, in most cases relative. Tony Blair pledged to abolish child poverty by 2020, and clearly, we won’t. But the argument over how we assess this is a thorny one. Blair had a simple aim: reduce the number of children living in households with less than 60 per cent median equivalised income. There is an obvious issue with this goal: if average incomes go up, but incomes of people lower down the scale stay still, then poverty has gone up despite the fact no one’s poorer. Likewise in a recession poverty is reduced, because the average income goes down. 

Policy Exchange - a think tank with which I can usually be relied upon to disagree with on everything - has also put forward a list of reasons why the target is flawed. It points out that if more people are in work, the median income goes up, thus increasing child poverty. So by this measure the Government is rewarded for doling out cash in benefits, rather than getting people into work, or improving the care and education systems, dealing with drug and alcohol dependency, improving housing, etc.

The kids in East London spoke a lot to me about relative poverty - about children in their borough living in cheap clothes, never being able to go on holidays, not eating properly - and as their testimonies revealed, the knock-on effects of this are pernicious. 

The question is whether the child poverty measure reflects their lives. It certainly feels right. Are the calls from Policy Exchange and the like merely a desire to muddy the waters? David Cameron has, prior to coming into power, said: “Poverty is relative – and those who pretend otherwise are wrong." The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has forecast that by 2015 the number of children in relative poverty will have risen by 400,000. A cynic might raise an eyebrow at this newfound desire to shift the goalposts on the part of the right.

It’s pretty easy to agree with Policy Exchange that the Government should look at things like parents with addiction and at in-work poverty, and it’s also clear that the child poverty measure is not perfect. But there are strong counter arguments. For a start, Labour wasn't just targeting that 60 per cent figure. The issue of shifting wages was why the Child Poverty Act includes an absolute poverty line - defined by the UN as “characterised by severe deprivation of basic human needs.”. It also includes a measure of low income and material deprivation, and another on persistent poverty. 

Policy Exchange claims that if people are moved from expensive private sector housing to cheaper social housing, that also pushes up poverty, because they need less cash in benefits - but actually there is a measure of before and after housing costs under the current system. Moreover, when the right complains that the statistic is a disincentive to work, it doesn’t note that almost two-thirds of children growing up in poverty live in a household where at least one member works. The answer is about surely about introducing a living wage, not reducing benefits. 

The other issue is that even if you disregard the median income figure, Labour’s achievements on many of the outlying factors were largely very impressive. Educational attainment and staying-on rates increased significantly; subjective well being and mental health indicators all showed a steady upward trend; and homelessness decreased. This was achieved through a number of methods - a more progressive tax and benefits system, measures designed to encourage parental employment, and more broader provisions - Sure Start, early years education provision, and the Decent Homes programme among others. 

But it would be disingenuous to make out that Labour’s record was brilliant, when so little progress was made on arguably the two biggest drivers of inequality - the differential rewards in the labour market and the disparities in educational attainment. And there’s a wider problem here: us. 

As the policy consultants Kate Bell and Jason Strelitz have argued: “By the middle of Labour’s period of Government, it had become clear to those concerned with child poverty that greater public concern on the issue was necessary to drive forward the policy agenda [...] but the agenda failed to resonate.” They cite three major reasons. Firstly, there was no coherent vision of what a society without it might look like. Second the term itself suggested “poverty” only applied to a static, small group of people, rather than a shifting dynamic, affecting the larger fabric of society. Finally, there was insufficient respect for those in poverty, with politicians and press happy to talk about a feral underclass.

And the one thing that really came out of the discussions I had is exactly how unfair - and how self-perpetuating - poverty is. What the kids were saying is backed up by statistics: by 16, children receiving free school meals achieve 1.7 grades lower at GCSE than their wealthier peers. Leaving school with fewer qualifications translates into lower earnings over the course of a working life. 

Basically, when you’re talking about child poverty, you’re talking about fairness. It’s something about which we should be absolutely outraged - but we just aren’t.

We should be really angry about child poverty, but we just aren't. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

David Young
Show Hide image

The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide