A grim decade. Photo:Getty
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After the election, what now for child poverty?

If the next five years aren't to see child poverty increase yet further, the government must rethink its approach.

Now the final vote has been counted and the last ballot box locked away, the real work of governing begins. When it comes to vulnerable children and their families, the new Government has a mountain to climb.

Under the Child Poverty Act (2010), the main political parties have a duty to eradicate child poverty by 2020.

Currently, 3.7 million children live in poverty in the UK. Following years where the amount of children living in hardship went down, the number is now flat-lining & looks set to rise steeply again. In fact, the Institute of Fiscal Studies predicts that by 2020 more than 32 percent of UK children will be living in poverty.

Poverty has a huge impact on the life chances of children and young people. Starting from the cradle onwards, poorer children can expect to typically lag up to 15 months behind in their vocabulary than their richer peers. At age seven, they perform far behind their classmates in ability tests.

Poorer children attain fewer good GCSEs and are more likely to be unemployed on leaving education. Once unemployed they face permanent ‘wage scarring’, which means they’ll earn less than their peers later in life too.

Barnardo’s works with the families who struggle daily at the coal face of the UK’s stubborn poverty problem. The factors driving hardship are complex and vary from family to family.

The recent recession, which was followed closely by a rise in the cost of living, hit the poorest particularly hard; a young family on minimum wage, for example, saw energy bills increase by up to 11% in one year alone (2013) and childcare costs rise by 77% in a single decade.

Meanwhile young people experienced double the unemployment rate of other workers during the recession, and a much slower recovery in its aftermath.

Beyond the ups and downs of the wider economic climate, however, political decisions have also driven hardship amongst struggling families.

The families we work with tell us they’ve been hit by a proliferation of recent changes to the benefits system. Partially aimed at cutting the UK welfare bill, these changes include tougher benefits ‘sanctions’ (suspension of payments), housing benefit cuts, and a below-inflation ‘freeze’ on income-related benefits

The human impact has often been unintentionally cruel. One mother, who missed a Jobcentre appointment because she was attending a meeting about her child at school, told us she was sanctioned for six weeks. Forced to survive on child benefit, the family turned to a suspected loan shark - turning a £300 loan into a £700 debt.

Worryingly, in their manifesto the Conservatives have committed to cutting £12bn of the welfare bill. It’s unclear exactly where the money will come from, but they have already pledged to restrict housing & out-of-work benefits for young people.

There are some crucial steps the new Government can take to improve the poorest children’s life chances, but they must heed lessons from the previous administration.

Firstly, they should guarantee that welfare cuts will not fall on the most vulnerable. They can start by following official recommendations and undertake a complete review of the financially punishing sanctions system.

Another major factor driving hardship is that, whilst these families’ benefits have been substantially cut, no real alternatives have materialised to help them escape the poverty trap.

In theory the new ‘Universal Credit’ welfare scheme, for example, goes a long way to helping families ‘work their way out of poverty’ as it irons out an anomaly in the current system by allowing claimants to work and claim benefits at the same time. It helps families more with childcare costs – a - major reason many find it difficult to work.

Yet the reality is that due to delays in introducing it ‘on the ground’, most families still aren’t on the scheme. At the same time, the Government has been stealthily cutting the benefit, by freezing it under the rate of inflation.

We would like to see the new Government continue introducing this scheme, but guarantee it will make no further cuts or freezes to working benefits so that when it’s finally rolled out to families it genuinely helps make work pay.

Finally, the Government must take steps to make sure that every child has the same life chances. Starting from the cradle onwards, they can commit in England* to protecting Children’s Centre funding, to increasing support for disadvantaged 3 and 4 year-olds, and assisting poor pupils through schemes like the Pupil Premium and Free School Meals. Marginalised school-leavers too need intensive personalised support and training to help them succeed in the work place.

Of course, other areas besides poverty need urgent ongoing attention. Sexual exploitation poses a huge threat to the wellbeing of UK children; recent revelations of the scale and nature of this vile form of abuse in Rotherham , Oxford and elsewhere highlights the need for Government action to ensure that in England* children are educated about healthy relationships. This has not been committed to in their manifesto either.

The new Government needs to wake up to the on-going issues that affect children around the UK, including poverty, taking action with proposals that protect and not punish the poorest. It is imperative that the UK looks after families who fall into crisis, by maintaining a benefits system that will nurture the children most in need of it.

Javed Khan is CEO of Barnardo's. He tweets at @JavedKhanCEO.

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?