Rochdale's Failinge estate, where 4 out of 5 children live in poverty. Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Image
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While the government officially abolishes child poverty, things are getting worse

At a stroke, the Government is about to abolish the concept, if not the reality, of child and working poverty. But a crisis is looming.

If the Government goes ahead with its plans to redefine child poverty then it will be turning its backs on poor children and on the past.

No redefinition can hide the reality that the Government’s child poverty strategy is failing.  It was only a year ago that Iain Duncan Smith was claiming the child poverty targets would be met but last week’s child poverty statistics showed that absolute child poverty has risen by half a million since 2010 and that progress on relative poverty has stalled.

Picking up from the hints dropped by the Prime Minister last week, Iain Duncan Smith’s statement to MPs on Wednesday made clear the Government’s intention to scrap the four statutory measures of child poverty – relative poverty, absolute poverty, persistent poverty and material deprivation and the targets to end child poverty.

The Government claims that having a poverty line based on 60% of median incomes, as we have now, led previous governments to tackle child poverty via  a ‘poverty plus a pound’ approach where extra benefit and tax credit spending was used to move people just below to just over the poverty line. A case decisively disproved by the IFS in 2010.

The progress made was actually down to the kind of broad approach that CPAG and other charities insisted upon. While the evidence is clear that the extra investment in tax credits and child benefit made a huge difference to low-income families and led to increased spending on fruit, vegetables, children’s clothing and books and less on cigarettes and alcohol - and there is strong evidence that the link between low income and poor child outcomes is causal - it is also true,that one-quarter of the fall in child poverty between 1997 and 2010 was due to the rise from 45-57% in lone-parent employment.

In fact, the Child Poverty Act which the Government is looking to effectively repeal actually requires  child poverty strategies to consider: parental employment, skills, information and advice, physical and mental health, education, childcare, social services, housing, the built environment and social inclusion - the essential ‘life chances’ building blocks set alongside the targets.

The relative poverty measure we use is a common-sense measure used by the OECD and the EU:  everyone recognises that poverty is first and foremost about a lack of money. This is as close as you get to a dictionary definition of poverty.

If the proposals to scrap the existing measures and targets and replace them with measures on worklessness and educational attainment go ahead then what the Government means when it talks about poverty will be confused and confusing.

What’s wrong with looking at worklessness and attainment? Nothing – except we won’t be talking poverty. Nor will we be measuring poverty if we look at the preferred indicators likely to be flagged up by Ministers. For example, whilst family breakdown and drug and alcohol addiction may increase the risk of poverty, they are also experienced by people higher up the income scale and problem debt may be a consequence of poverty, but is not the same as poverty.

The absurdity of this approach is best seen when we looking at working poverty.

Children are much more likely to be in poverty because they have a parent who is a security guard or a cleaner than one who is an alcohol or drug addict. Nearly two thirds of poor children live in working families. All this is pretty inconvenient for a Government reportedly eyeing up tax credits for more cuts.

As it stands it looks like these children will no longer figure in government measures. At a stroke, the Government is about to abolish the concept, if not the reality, of child and working poverty. Lacking money or being in work will mean you no longer count as poor.

This is public policy going through the looking glass. Nothing will be quite what it seems.

All this is desperately disappointing. Five years ago we had a cross-party consensus on child poverty. It comes less than a decade after the Prime Minister and Iain Duncan-Smith repudiated the Tory Governments of the 1980s for ignoring relative poverty.

Reflecting on the rapid rise in child poverty in the 1980s, a report by Iain Duncan Smith said: “The growth of child poverty on the relative measure was particularly alarming….this huge increase in income inequality has been rightly described as “one of the biggest social changes in Britain since the Second World War.”  

He was right. Whatever ministers call it, unless they act to solve the root causes, not switch off the warning light flashing red, the looming child poverty crisis threatens to reshape society by limiting the lives and life chances of this generation of children. 

Alison Garnham is the CEO of Child Poverty Action Group

Alison Garnham is chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group

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Private renter poverty has doubled in a decade - so where's Labour?

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation named housing market failures as driving poverty. 

Labour’s economic policy task is enormous. It must find a coherent argument that addresses Brexit, the “left behinds”, and a nervous business community. But there is one policy area that should be an open goal – private renting. 

The number of private renters in poverty has doubled over the last decade, according to a new report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Those most likely to fall into poverty are working families – there were 2.8m of these people in 2014-15, compared to 1m a decade earlier.

“Failures in the housing market are a significant driver of poverty,” the report noted, after finding more than 70 per cent of private renters in poverty pay at least a third of their income in rent.

This is particularly the case if you consider the knock-on effect - housing benefit. This benefit was frozen by George Osborne, meaning that by 2015 Shelter calculated rates had fallen behind actual rents in nearly 70 per cent of England. For families out of work, of course, housing benefit is also included in the benefit cap. 

Private renter poverty is easily characterised as an inner-city problem – the kind cherished by the “metropolitan elite”. But in fact, across Great Britain as a whole, roughly one in ten children under 19 lives in a family that is privately renting and claiming housing benefit. The highest percentage was in Blackpool, followed by the Essex coastal area of Tendring, followed by London boroughs. Private renting is a trend that affects both the Remain strongholds and the Leave coastal towns.

So far, Labour has been relatively quiet on private renting. During the summer’s leadership campaign, Jeremy Corbyn promised to introduce “rent controls, secure tenancies and a charter of private tenants’ rights” (a promise he repeated as part of a longer speech in November). But this is hardly a blockbuster campaign. 

And the challenges are great. A convincing renting policy must explain how Labour would deal with a reactionary letting market industry (including pensioner voters), whether renting should be a step to buying, or an end in itself, and how new council and social housing would be allocated.

Labour could also, though, tie a rent campaign into other trends - the growing army of self-employed that find it hard to prove their wages to a landlord or mortgage lender, the working families on frozen benefits, and the employers that find their employees priced out of the local area. And pissed-off tenants are not hard to find. 

If Labour doesn’t move soon on an issue that should be its natural home, the government may steal the keys. In the Autumn Statement, Philip Hammond helped himself to Ed Miliband’s 2015 promise to ban letting agent fees. The government has also set up a working group with members of the private renting industry. (Yes, the government may also be selling off social housing under Right to Buy, but if you never had the option of social housing anyway, this may pass you by.)

Fixing the housing market takes imagination and a steeliness to take on entrenched interests. But if Labour does come up with a solution, it could touch the lives of voters, both Leave and Remain. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.