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17 December 2010

Why a rise in poverty will humiliate Cameron

Osborne and Cameron will stand accused not only of being unfair but of being insincere.

By George Eaton

“The right test for our policies is how they help the most disadvantaged in society, not the rich.”

David Cameron, Built to Last, March 2006

The latest Institute for Fiscal Studies report, showing that the coalition’s welfare cuts will hugely increase poverty, should set alarm bells ringing in Downing Street.

Cameron and George Osborne have chosen, against the judgement of several of their colleagues, to claim that their austerity package is a “progressive” one. Should poverty increase on their watch (as it is now certain, too), they will stand accused of being not only unfair, but insincere.

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Without significant changes to its tax and spending plans, there is no prospect of the government meeting its child poverty targets. Indeed, it is likely to preside over the first increase in child poverty in 15 years. According to the IFS forecasts, absolute child poverty will increase by 200,000 in 2012/13 and by 300,000 in 2013/14. As a result, in the words of the IFS, “meeting the legally binding child poverty targets in 2020 would require the biggest fall in relative child poverty after 2013-14 since at least 1961”.

In total, between 2010-2011 and 2013-2014, the coalition’s plans will increase absolute poverty among all children and working-age adults by 900,000 and relative poverty (defined as households with less than 60 per cent of the median income) among the same group by 800,000. Were it not for a general decline in living standards, as earnings fail to keep up with inflation, the rise would be steeper still.

The coalition is now under increasing pressure to reject the internationally recognised definition of poverty (see here for a defence of it). Neil O’Brien of Policy Exchange, for instance, argues:

The problem with what the IFS is saying is that the measure they use isn’t an indicator of real poverty; it’s a measure of inequality. It defines “poverty” as being below 60 per cent of the average income.

This is a hangover from the Gordon Brown era. Real poverty isn’t the same as inequality. The IFS’s definition would mean that there are actually more people in poverty in Britain today than there are in Poland.

Many Conservatives would have preferred Cameron and Osborne to mount a Thatcherite defence of regressive economics from the start. But they have gone too far down the “progressive” path to turn back now. A rise in poverty will humiliate the coalition.

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