By rebranding child poverty, the Conservatives think they are saving the poor from themselves

Today’s figures are an exercise in muddying the waters – if you don’t like the answer, ask another question.

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Is it wrong to celebrate child poverty? When it appears to not increase, at least. Yesterday, it was being predicted that – in response to coalition cuts such as the bedroom tax and benefit freezes – the number of children living in relative poverty had rocketed for the first time since the 1990s. This morning, official figures for 2013/14 put it at 2.3 million – not much changed from the previous year.

I imagine that is called “a win”. The three pound coins a single mother has each day to feed, clothe, and warm her kids after the benefit cap. The sanitary towels to be picked at a clothes’ bank. The bedsores on a severely disabled woman told to pay the bedroom tax. None of that matters now, if it ever did.

Two hundred thousand more children have actually been pushed deeper into poverty over the past year, as The Children’s Society put it to me this morning. The number of vulnerable children being taken into care or placed on child protection plans has – as a separate studied showed this week – increased for the fifth year in a row, thanks in part to growing poverty. The Conservatives can ignore that. As they can the fact that 300,000 more disabled people are in poverty (after housing costs). It is that bracketed measure that is particularly telling. It was not just two days ago that David Cameron worked to change the definition of poverty.  As Chris Goulden at Joseph Rowntree Foundation stresses, if we use the definition of poverty that included housing costs – the one that was used before 2010 – 4.1 million children are now below the poverty line.

Muddy the waters. If you do not like the answer, ask another question. As Alison Garnham, chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, wrote for the New Statesman yesterday – no matter how the Conservatives try to shift the goal posts – “it’s clear the government is nowhere near meeting its child poverty targets”.

It would be easy to wonder if they are even trying. Back in 2012, the Institute for Social and Economic Research reported that it is only benefits and redistributive tax that stop the UK having one of the highest child poverty rates in Europe. The Conservative response was to make unprecedented hacks to social security. We are here again. End Child Poverty, a coalition of 150 children’s charities and experts, recommend giving measures like child tax credits a “triple lock” – the same protection given to the basic state pension – so they either rise in line with prices, earnings, or by 2.5 per cent, effectively saving 310,000 children from living in absolute poverty who will otherwise be by 2020. Instead, Cameron spent this week emphasising the need to cut them.

Having children living in poverty does not sit well with the idea of a growing economy. Luckily, the cuts promoted are no longer about the deficit.  Austerity was always economic strategy as a smokescreen for social engineering. The difference between when cuts like the bedroom tax were brought in and today is that, nowadays, they barely bother to hide it. Listen to the language George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith chose for their joint stall setting in the Sunday Times last weekend.

It was not only a statement that they will press on with undiluted £12bn of benefit cuts, but that it will be done in order to reform the “the damaging culture of welfare dependency”. Cameron’s Conservatives did not invent the belief that state support to lift citizens out of poverty is what traps the poor in it. “In general it is only hunger which can spur and goad them onto labour,” read the Dissertation on the Poor Laws in 1786. As George Monbiot wrote in an excellent column this week, the myth that cruelty – read, removing benefits – is actually kindness has been with conservatism for 200 years and more. It is not going anywhere.   

The Conservative manifesto for 2015 included the push to recognise “the root causes of poverty: entrenched worklessness, family breakdown, problem debt, and drug and alcohol dependency”. We are in the first half of a decade of “poverty: the re-brand”. The Conservatives are less looking to alleviate hunger, more create a new understanding of it.

How the government chooses to interpret today’s figures will act as fuel to what is an ideological mission. The poor are poor because of their own dependency, and – rather than socio-economic travesties – the bedroom tax to cuts to child tax credits are innovations. Show some gratitude. The Conservatives are saving the poor from themselves.  

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.