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.

Photo: Getty
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Ken Livingstone says publicly what many are saying privately: tomorrow belongs to John McDonnell

The Shadow Chancellor has emerged as a frontrunner should another Labour leadership election happen. 

“It would be John.” Ken Livingstone, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal allies in the media, has said publicly what many are saying privately: if something does happen to Corbyn, or should he choose to step down, place your bets on John McDonnell. Livingstone, speaking to Russia Today, said that if Corbyn were "pushed under a bus", John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, would be the preferred candidate to replace him.

Even among the Labour leader’s allies, speculation is rife as to if the Islington North MP will lead the party into the 2020 election. Corbyn would be 71 in 2020 – the oldest candidate for Prime Minister since Clement Attlee lost the 1955 election aged 72.

While Corbyn is said to be enjoying the role at present, he still resents the intrusion of much of the press and dislikes many of the duties of the party leader. McDonnell, however, has impressed even some critics with his increasingly polished TV performances and has wowed a few sceptical donors. One big donor, who was thinking of pulling their money, confided that a one-on-one chat with the shadow chancellor had left them feeling much happier than a similar chat with Ed Miliband.

The issue of the succession is widely discussed on the left. For many, having waited decades to achieve a position of power, pinning their hopes on the health of one man would be unforgivably foolish. One historically-minded trade union official points out that Hugh Gaitskell, at 56, and John Smith, at 55, were 10 and 11 years younger than Corbyn when they died. In 1994, the right was ready and had two natural successors in the shape of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in place. In 1963, the right was unprepared and lost the leadership to Harold Wilson, from the party's centre. "If something happens, or he just decides to call it a day, [we have to make sure] it will be '94 not '63," they observed.

While McDonnell is just two years younger than Corbyn, his closest ally in politics and a close personal friend, he is seen by some as considerably more vigorous. His increasingly frequent outings on television have seen him emerge as one of the most adept media performers from the Labour left, and he has won internal plaudits for his recent tussles with George Osborne over the tax bill.

The left’s hopes of securing a non-Corbyn candidate on the ballot have been boosted in recent weeks. The parliamentary Labour party’s successful attempt to boot Steve Rotheram off the party’s ruling NEC, while superficially a victory for the party’s Corbynsceptics, revealed that the numbers are still there for a candidate of the left to make the ballot. 30 MPs voted to keep Rotheram in place, with many MPs from the left of the party, including McDonnell, Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John Trickett, abstaining.

The ballot threshold has risen due to a little-noticed rule change, agreed over the summer, to give members of the European Parliament equal rights with members of the Westminster Parliament. However, Labour’s MEPs are more leftwing, on the whole, than the party in Westminster . In addition, party members vote on the order that Labour MEPs appear on the party list, increasing (or decreasing) their chances of being re-elected, making them more likely to be susceptible to an organised campaign to secure a place for a leftwinger on the ballot.

That makes it – in the views of many key players – incredibly likely that the necessary 51 nominations to secure a place on the ballot are well within reach for the left, particularly if by-election selections in Ogmore, where the sitting MP, is standing down to run for the Welsh Assembly, and Sheffield Brightside, where Harry Harpham has died, return candidates from the party’s left.

McDonnell’s rivals on the left of the party are believed to have fallen short for one reason or another. Clive Lewis, who many party activists believe could provide Corbynism without the historical baggage of the man himself, is unlikely to be able to secure the nominations necessary to make the ballot.

Any left candidate’s route to the ballot paper runs through the 2015 intake, who are on the whole more leftwing than their predecessors. But Lewis has alienated many of his potential allies, with his antics in the 2015 intake’s WhatsApp group a sore point for many. “He has brought too much politics into it,” complained one MP who is also on the left of the party. (The group is usually used for blowing off steam and arranging social events.)

Lisa Nandy, who is from the soft left rather than the left of the party, is widely believed to be in the running also, despite her ruling out any leadership ambitions in a recent interview with the New Statesman.However, she would represent a break from the Corbynite approach, albeit a more leftwing one than Dan Jarvis or Hilary Benn.

Local party chairs in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is profiling should another leadership election arise. One constituency chair noted to the New Statesman that: “you could tell who was going for it [last time], because they were desperate to speak [at events]”. Tom Watson, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall all visited local parties across the country in preparation for their election bids in 2015.

Now, speaking to local party activists, four names are mentioned more than any other: Dan Jarvis, currently on the backbenches, but in whom the hopes – and the donations – of many who are disillusioned by the current leadership are invested, Gloria De Piero, who is touring the country as part of the party’s voter registration drive, her close ally Jon Ashworth, and John McDonnell.

Another close ally of Corbyn and McDonnell, who worked closely on the leadership election, is in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is gearing up for a run should the need arise.  “You remember when that nice Mr Watson went touring the country? Well, pay attention to John’s movements.”

As for his chances of success, McDonnell may well be even more popular among members than Corbyn himself. He is regularly at or near the top of LabourList's shadow cabinet rankings, and is frequently praised by members. Should he be able to secure the nominations to get on the ballot, an even bigger victory than that secured by Corbyn in September is not out of the question.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.