The Department for Work and Pensions's new Child Poverty Strategy lacks any way of measuring success. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Why is Iain Duncan Smith avoiding the elephant in the room?

The Department for Work and Pensions’ Child Poverty Strategy lacks any hint of a target. How will we know if it is succeeding?

The Department for Work and Pensions’ Child Poverty Strategy – published this morning – has a clear three-dimensional approach to tackling low-income: focusing on income, costs of living and educational attainment.

This is a promising middle way between a single income-based strategy – which the Government argues led to an unhelpful pursuit of “Poverty plus a pound” – and an over extended multi-dimensional approach. Demos has long-argued the pitfalls of using income alone to measure child poverty. Our analysis of 40,000 low-income households in poverty highlighted the importance of measuring other everyday indicators such as health, housing, debt and material deprivation.

So far, so promising. But this is where the good news ends.

While the framework seems clear, there is an elephant in the room. There is not a hint of a target, not a suggestion of how progress might be measured, or indeed what a vision of success might look like.

How will we know in future if this strategy is working, and child poverty falls? In the absence of a direct response to this question, it seems possible the government may drop the income-based measurement and put nothing in its place. Or indeed, we might have a situation where the government claims success in reducing child poverty through the achievement of policies, rather than outcomes – confusing the means with the ends.

The strategy reads more like a retrospective – defining poverty in a way that fits with the Government’s existing agenda. Many of the dozens of announcements relate to previous funding commitments, while almost everything the government has worked on since 2010 has been grouped into one of the three action areas - Supporting families into Work and increasing their earnings, Improving living standards, and Preventing poor children becoming poor adults through raising their educational attainment.

In this strategy, we are told that Universal Credit is the solution to tackling in work poverty and the Localism Act addresses neighbourhood deprivation. In some areas, the document does away with past or previously announced policies altogether and only talks about trends – “Nearly 1.7 million private sector jobs have been created since 2010…”. Where future plans are hinted at, some are bemusingly open ended – the government will reduce the costs of living by “Promoting competition across all areas”.

The convenient implication is that wins in these areas will be seen as a win for tackling child poverty.

A strategy which does little more than serves to give coherence to and justify previous and current government policy also has another risk – it is wildly open to being exploited for policy bandwagons.

Just an hour before its release, IDS and Osborne took to the Guardian to proclaim the strategy would tackle the “root causes” of poverty “entrenched worklessness, family breakdown, problem debt, drug and alcohol dependency”.

This “troubled family” world view – where poverty is a life choice, a symptom of moral decline – so beloved of Conservative ministers is entirely at odds with the rigorous evidence -base and priority areas presented in the strategy – one which recognises that while poverty is a major issue for drug addicts, problem drug addiction (at 0.9 per cent of the population) is not a major issue for people in poverty.

Even the addition of a child poverty target would fail to balance this fatal flaw.

Claudia Wood is deputy director of the think tank Demos


Claudia Wood is deputy director of Demos.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

How austere will Philip Hammond be?

The Chancellor must choose between softening or abandoning George Osborne's approach in his Autumn Statement. 

After becoming Chancellor, Philip Hammond was swift to confirm that George Osborne's budget surplus target would be abandoned. The move was hailed by some as the beginning of a new era of fiscal policy - but it was more modest than it appeared. Rather than a statement of principle, the abandonment of the 2019-20 target was merely an acceptance of reality. In the absence of additional spending cuts or tax rises, it would inevitably be missed (as Osborne himself recognised following the EU referendum). The decision did not represent, as some suggested, "the end of austerity".

Ahead of his first Autumn Statement on 23 November, the defining choice facing Hammond is whether to make a more radical break. As a new Resolution Foundation report notes, the Chancellor could either delay the surplus target (the conservative option) or embrace an alternative goal. Were he to seek a current budget suplus, rather than an overall one (as Labour pledged at the last general election), Hammond would avoid the need for further austerity and give himself up to £17bn of headroom. This would allow him to borrow for investment and to provide support for the "just managing" families (as Theresa May calls them) who will be squeezed by the continuing benefits freeze.

Alternatively, should Hammond merely delay Osborne's surplus target by a year (to 2020-21), he would be forced to impose an additional £9bn of tax rises or spending cuts. Were he to reject any further fiscal tightening, a surplus would not be achieved until 2023-24 - too late to be politically relevant. 

The most logical option, as the Resolution Foundation concludes, is for Hammond to target a current surplus. But since entering office, both he and May have emphasised their continuing commitment to fiscal conservatism ("He talks about austerity – I call it living within our means," the latter told Jeremy Corbyn at her first PMQs). For Hammond to abandon the goal of the UK's first budget surplus since 2001-02 would be a defining moment. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.