We are constantly warned about the dismal consequences the Government’s welfare reforms are having on child poverty. Yet today we learn that, despite all of the hysteria, last year ‘child poverty’ actually fell to its lowest level since the 1980s. Half a million more children were in poverty before the financial crisis than today. Or at least, this is what happened if you accept the way the Government currently chooses to measure poverty.
The latest figures show that 2.3 million UK children are growing up in poverty – defined as less than 60 per cent of median income. This is unchanged from last year.
One of the (many) problems with this measure is that the downward trend in child poverty rates can largely be linked with a fall in incomes across the country, which has dragged down the relative poverty line. In other words, as incomes decline in a recession, so can the number of children deemed to be in poverty. Many children have been lifted above the poverty line, in some cases despite absolutely no change to their own material circumstances.
What we really need is a measure which reflects the complex reality of poverty in the UK. Of course this should include income. In fact, one of the most depressing observations today is the rise in the number of working families struggling on low incomes. This should serve as a wake-up call for Government to do more to tackle low pay, to help people increase their hours and encourage progression in the labour market.
But income only tells part of the story. The CSJ has consistently argued that any serious measure of child poverty must reflect its root causes – family breakdown, educational failure, worklessness, addiction and serious personal debt. These are the factors which ultimately predict the life chances of a child; it is shameful that Governments past and present have failed to acknowledge them in the measure.
Measuring poverty in this way will also help drive a smarter and more preventative policy response to the deep-seated problems that beset families, rather than relying every year on enormous Tax Credit expenditure to pick up the pieces of social breakdown.
Today’s figures paint a picture which is at odds with the reality. Child poverty remains a serious and pressing issue in the UK, and cannot simply be reduced to a lack of income. The current measure fails to reflect this and ultimately does a disservice to our children. It has to change.