Today’s figures show child poverty is flatlining. The government may choose to spin this as good news – after all, at least the numbers aren’t going up. But, in the context of the looming child poverty targets that the government is both committed to and says it will meet, a “period of stability” is not good enough.
Digging a little deeper, the figures reveal two inconvenient truths for the government. First, their assertion that work is the best route out of poverty is a little simplistic. Approaching two-thirds of children in poverty live in a working household. That proportion has risen steeply from under half in the last decade. Low pay, low- or zero-hours contracts, and insecure jobs mean that work is not working for millions of families.
Second, benefit uprating matters. 2012 was the last year we saw the value of family benefits increased in line with inflation. If it hadn’t been for that decision, child poverty would have increased that year – which is the year that these latest figures covered. Since then, the government has, through a combination of freezes and 1 per cent uprating, cut the real value of benefits. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies has pointed out, this can only drive up child poverty from this point on.
Last week, the government released its child poverty strategy for the next three years. Half of those responding to the consultation on the strategy raised concerns about the impact of welfare reform on low income families, but the government appears to have taken little note of these anxieties. If the value of benefits continues to decline, these impacts are only going to get tougher.
The government has six years to meet its target to end child poverty. The progress of the last decade has now stalled, and is set to go into reverse. To get anywhere near that target, we need to see investment in children’s services and family benefits, and action to fix broken markets so that they provide decent, secure jobs and affordable housing. Now is not the time for self-congratulation. Instead, we need urgent, meaningful action to tackle poverty.
Alison Garnham is chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group