In his first speech as the government’s child poverty adviser, Alan Milburn today told the coalition to “come clean” on the impossibility of meeting the poverty reduction targets enshrined in the 2010 Child Poverty Act. The challenge of reducing child poverty to less than 10 per cent by 2020 has been laid bare by analysis revealing the heavy work done by tax credits in raising family incomes above the poverty line over the last 15 years. Work did not do enough: parental employment rates rose considerably over this period but low wages limited the contribution of paid work to reducing family poverty.
This is now the central challenge for the child poverty agenda: how to reduce poverty when the only tool that been shown to be effective — more generous cash transfers — is no longer available on any meaningful scale. The task is made harder by analysis highlighting the contribution that women’s paid work has made to rising family incomes over the last few decades. This source of income is likely to diminish as public sector jobs are lost and support for childcare is reduced for some families. As a result, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has stated that it’s “almost incredible” that the child poverty targets can be met as they stand.
So Alan Milburn is right to challenge both the coalition and Labour to get real about child poverty. The Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, featuring cuts to tax credits that will push 100,000 more children into poverty, implicitly confirmed that the government doesn’t think it can meet its own targets either. But officially the coalition remains committed to the 2010 Act, so it needs to say where it will focus its efforts. Milburn makes a strong case for prioritising the under fives, ensuring that no child is born into poverty. If we cannot afford to lift all children out of poverty, concentrating on the youngest gives them the best chance to flourish later in life.
The importance of raising incomes in poor families is obvious, but families also need good quality services to give children the best start. There is no “either/or” deal here. Milburn’s call for the coalition to set out a long-term plan to deliver free childcare for all families is right. IPPR research shows that universal childcare could pay for itself over the medium-term once the extra taxes paid by working parents are taken into account, while the extra earnings would help lift many families out of poverty. A mechanism for enabling childcare spend to contribute towards the child poverty targets would drive a duel strategy of investment in incomes and services. In the longer term, labour market reforms that support higher wages for parents would take some of the burden off the benefits system.
The public’s ambiguous support for ending child poverty demonstrates the failure of this agenda to resonate with families. Milburn’s broader plea to locate the child poverty debate in a wider discussion of economic security is spot on. Few families are continually stuck in deep poverty, but many move in and out of poverty as short-term jobs come to an end or families grow. Free childcare, flexible working opportunities, decent wages and job security matter for most low-to-mid income families, not just the poorest.
Kayte Lawton is a senior research fellow at the IPPR