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.