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20 October 2014

Why we now need to reset the child poverty targets

Alan Milburn's call to reset the 2020 target to end child poverty is both necessary and regrettable.

By Alison Garnham

The independent Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission confirmed today what we’ve known for a while: that we are desperately off-course as a country when it comes to child poverty. Rather than making slow but steady progress to reduce child poverty to minimal levels, we are now heading in the opposite direction. A child poverty crisis is brewing in the air.

It wasn’t always like this. Just a few years ago, child poverty campaigners like us were riding high. We had witnessed a period during which investments in financial support for families, employment support and childcare had helped lift over 1 million children out of poverty. The Child Poverty Act 2010 had just been passed with strong cross-party support, committing our then and future governments to time-bound targets to “make child poverty history”. From this point on, the slogan wasn’t just campaigning rhetoric; it was the law of the land.

Despite this, things have not progressed as hoped. One in four children are poor and two thirds of poor children have a working parent. Independent analysis has shown time and again that it is  families with children who have borne the brunt of austerity, absorbing 70 per cent of all cuts to benefits and tax credits. Child benefit alone has lost 14 per cent of its real value over the course of this parliament; children’s services have been decimated as a result of cuts to local authority funding; and expensive giveaways such as the increase in the personal tax allowance don’t help those on the lowest incomes. As Orwell might have put it, we may be “all in it together”, but some of us are clearly more “in it” than others.

And low-income parents haven’t just taken it in the neck financially: increasingly they are blamed for their own poverty. It is their fault that their wages are low (even though the squeeze on mid-level jobs in our hourglass economy has been well-documented); that their hours of work are truncated (when 3.4m people are currently underemployed, looking to work more hours to top up their wages); and their rents are increasing exponentially (although cheaper areas also have fewer jobs). Parents are criticised for how they spend their money, how they raise their children; and indeed, from some quarters, for simply having children at all.

It comes as no surprise, then, that child poverty rates are on the up. The Institute for Fiscal Studies projections warn that there will be 400,000 more children living in poverty in the UK by 2015 than there were in 2010. Current policies will impoverish a further half a million children by 2020. Arguably, that’s best case scenario: these figures do not factor in the poverty effects of future policies that are likely to fall hardest on low-income families too.

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Given this, the Commission has made the radical suggestion: that we face up to that facts and acknowledge we will not reach our statutory targets to end child poverty by 2020. However, the Commission also makes clear that failing to achieve the child poverty targets by 2020 does not mean they are unachievable: reducing child poverty to  minimal levels is something similar countries to our own have done, and remains a critical – and indeed popular – public policy objective.  

Are Alan Milburn and his fellow commissioners letting the government off the hook? A bit, perhaps. It would certainly have been appropriate for the child poverty watchdog to explain in more detail how this parlous state of affairs has occurred. The report skates over the fact that changes to the way that benefits are uprated are indisputably the biggest driver of the child poverty increases the IFS projects.   

But the Commission’s approach is also sensible. Rather than suggest wearily that we aren’t going to meet the child poverty targets by 2020, and that we walk away from the promises made to a generation of children with a sigh, they propose we reset the clock. The Commission makes clear that the objective of reducing child poverty to minimal levels must remain intact, but we need to find a new end date that brings this back into the realms of reality.

How sad that we need to be thinking like this. But the Commission’s approach has the virtue of honesty, something which has been decidedly lacking from the debate in recent years. The government in particular seems stuck in deep denial about the child poverty impacts of its programme: incredibly, ministers still claim they are on track to meet the 2020 targets. They no longer report on the impact of policy announcements on child poverty for example; evade questions on the topic; and hide behind poverty data that conveniently lags so far back in time it has yet to catch up with reality.

The Commission’s announcement feels like a breath of fresh air, then, in a debate awash with confusion, misinformation and out-of-date numbers. But when millions of children are growing up poor in a wealthy country like the UK, it also needs to be a wake-up call to politicians, activists, and the public alike. We have failed once; we cannot afford to do it again. Child poverty costs us all dear; it is time to put this right.

Alison Garnham is chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group

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