There are few issues as important as child poverty. For too many children in our country their circumstances of birth determine their opportunities in life. The latest figures show that one in six UK children is in relative poverty, defined as being in a family living below 60% median income. In some cases this is a matter of life and death: some people in the poorest communities die 25 years earlier than people in the richest. Furthermore, overwhelming evidence shows how children who grow up in poverty experience considerable disadvantage and trauma on key measures, and are four times more likely to go on to become income poor as adults. Ending this injustice should be one of our nation’s top priorities.
Yet politically child poverty seems to be as contentious as it is important. This in part relates to which policies and approaches Ministers adopt to end child poverty, which of course are debated rigorously. As is well documented for example, New Labour’s approach to reducing child poverty (and overall poverty) was to focus on alleviating its symptoms through welfare-based income transfers, to target specific groups of people thus moving them above the official income ‘poverty line’. As well as too little changing in people’s lives, despite their being technically ‘lifted out of poverty’ on a Treasury spreadsheet, less attention was paid to improving life chances, confronting entrenched poverty and reversing social breakdown as a root cause of disadvantage.
And today, with a Coalition Government, we often hear the reverse criticisms. Labour argues that not enough focus is given to those playing by the rules but stuck in ‘poverty wages’. They tend to rail against what is perceived as a distancing from income transfers and the relative income measures enshrined in the Child Poverty Act of 2010.
The debate, somewhat frustratingly for most people who care about both the working poor and those on the margins of society, can go around in circles.
More than a year has passed since the Government sought views on changing the metrics for child poverty. So the omission of new measures in today’s draft strategy is disappointing, because Ministers continue to be accountable to a set of measures they have repeatedly cast doubt upon and clearly don’t trust.
In order to create a new meaningful strategy we need a new set of measures soon. As the Centre for Social Justice has argued previously, these could ensure that public policy is focused on both dismantling the root causes of poverty – like family instability, poor education and low skills or worklessness – and tackling relative low income.
Another point, which perhaps isn’t yet as politically contentious as it should be, is that through interventions like Tax Credits, successive Governments have been pursuing a short-term multi-billion pound subsidisation strategy. One of the reasons the welfare bill has been rising so quickly is that it is being used to ‘top up’ wages and rent.
It seems Westminster is finally waking up to this. One of the key sentences in today’s draft strategy argues that child poverty cannot be ended by central government alone. This begins to echo the calls made last year by Alan Milburn’s Child Poverty and Social Mobility Commission, on which I sit, and many others.
Broadening the poverty fight beyond Whitehall presents an opportunity, especially in relation to helping the working poor. It could allow us, for example, to work through the difficult dilemmas of social responsibility and put collective political pressure on employers who could do more to help their workers who might be trapped in low wages. It might also force consensus about building more homes to alleviate high cost rent, which will rely on new commitment from developers and planners, as well as politicians
Of course when it comes to tackling poverty, governments should provide a fair safety-net for those in hard times. It is also incumbent upon politicians to engineer systems to encourage people into employment and to progress in work. That’s why Universal Credit, for all the debate about its implementation, is such an essential change. But this will only take us so far in the quest to make work pay and reduce child poverty.
We also need a careful debate about the way taxpayers are quietly bailing out businesses and topping up rising rents. Most politicians, at least privately, agree this is unsustainable. And with many larger firms, for instance, wrestling with the future of Corporate Social Responsibility and how they should use their profits to benefit their communities in new ways, we have a window for change.
In good economic times we tested to near destruction the theory that we can spend our way out of poverty through the welfare system. And now, with a £100 billion budget deficit and rising national debt, Government lives under severe constraint. But regardless of the politics, it is only when all sections of our society are mobilised to reduce child poverty, employers and property developers included, that will see lives changed and child poverty reduced.