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27 February 2014

Why is Iain Duncan Smith avoiding the elephant in the room?

The Department for Work and Pensions’ Child Poverty Strategy lacks any hint of a target. How will we know if it is succeeding?

By Claudia Wood

The Department for Work and Pensions’ Child Poverty Strategy – published this morning – has a clear three-dimensional approach to tackling low-income: focusing on income, costs of living and educational attainment.

This is a promising middle way between a single income-based strategy – which the Government argues led to an unhelpful pursuit of “Poverty plus a pound” – and an over extended multi-dimensional approach. Demos has long-argued the pitfalls of using income alone to measure child poverty. Our analysis of 40,000 low-income households in poverty highlighted the importance of measuring other everyday indicators such as health, housing, debt and material deprivation.

So far, so promising. But this is where the good news ends.

While the framework seems clear, there is an elephant in the room. There is not a hint of a target, not a suggestion of how progress might be measured, or indeed what a vision of success might look like.

How will we know in future if this strategy is working, and child poverty falls? In the absence of a direct response to this question, it seems possible the government may drop the income-based measurement and put nothing in its place. Or indeed, we might have a situation where the government claims success in reducing child poverty through the achievement of policies, rather than outcomes – confusing the means with the ends.

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The strategy reads more like a retrospective – defining poverty in a way that fits with the Government’s existing agenda. Many of the dozens of announcements relate to previous funding commitments, while almost everything the government has worked on since 2010 has been grouped into one of the three action areas – Supporting families into Work and increasing their earnings, Improving living standards, and Preventing poor children becoming poor adults through raising their educational attainment.

In this strategy, we are told that Universal Credit is the solution to tackling in work poverty and the Localism Act addresses neighbourhood deprivation. In some areas, the document does away with past or previously announced policies altogether and only talks about trends – “Nearly 1.7 million private sector jobs have been created since 2010…”. Where future plans are hinted at, some are bemusingly open ended – the government will reduce the costs of living by “Promoting competition across all areas”.

The convenient implication is that wins in these areas will be seen as a win for tackling child poverty.

A strategy which does little more than serves to give coherence to and justify previous and current government policy also has another risk – it is wildly open to being exploited for policy bandwagons.

Just an hour before its release, IDS and Osborne took to the Guardian to proclaim the strategy would tackle the “root causes” of poverty “entrenched worklessness, family breakdown, problem debt, drug and alcohol dependency”.

This “troubled family” world view – where poverty is a life choice, a symptom of moral decline – so beloved of Conservative ministers is entirely at odds with the rigorous evidence -base and priority areas presented in the strategy – one which recognises that while poverty is a major issue for drug addicts, problem drug addiction (at 0.9 per cent of the population) is not a major issue for people in poverty.

Even the addition of a child poverty target would fail to balance this fatal flaw.

Claudia Wood is deputy director of the think tank Demos