If tackling British poverty constituted rousing ministerial speeches, party political knockabout, glossy strategies and increasingly high welfare spending to target select groups of people, it would be a problem of the past. That approach has defined decades of public policy. It hasn’t worked.
Visit any number of the UK’s most deprived communities, listen to people born in neighbourhoods where average life expectancy is 54, and you’ll see why. A political obsession with a very narrow measure of poverty has fuelled failure in areas crying out for something better. But with the Coalition’s consultation on redefining child poverty ongoing, there is finally a flickering hope for something better.
I recently spent time in one of the UK’s most celebrated cities. It was busy with industry and opportunity. Yet like countless other communities across Britain it remains held back by pockets of unacceptable deprivation and everything about the physical environment screamed ‘written off’.
Look a little closer at such neighbourhoods and we see something even deeper than physical dilapidation. Behind the front doors are far too many broken and chaotic families – nearly half of all children born today will experience family breakdown by the time they reach 16. There are many adults who could work but don’t because when they do the maths, there’s nothing to be gained by coming off benefits. There’s usually a local school where a culture of low expectations and high truancy rates are a catalyst for underachievement and future welfare dependency. Alcohol abuse and drug addiction tend to flow through these estates like a river and unmanageable high interest household debt – often secured on the doorstep not the high street – puts enormous strain on low income families.
During my time in one such community recently I met Craig. As a child he had grown up in a dysfunctional home dropping in and out of school. He was consumed by a need to learn not about GCSE subjects but about the laws of survival, respect and status. He got into gang crime, drug abuse and anti-social behaviour in his early teenage years. He became a notorious thief to feed his habit and pay his debts, spending more time in court than in class.
Yet these factors are nowhere to be found in the way successive Governments have measured poverty. For years the acid test for Craig’s household and his ‘poverty status’ has been a basic income measurement. Regardless of whether he had stable and working parents, food on the table, warm clothes for the winter or a bed to sleep in, it was job done on the poverty front for politicians if they could be sure he was a few pounds above the income line.
This income line – set at 60 per cent of the national median – has driven everything Governments have done to fight poverty. Of course money matters and plays a part in determining the life chances of children. Yet based on this narrow metric, a family can go to bed one night ‘in poverty’ and wake up the following morning out of it, due to minor spreadsheet changes to welfare and tax credits made in Whitehall.
So bizarre is the current relative measure in fact that recent figures showed fewer children were in poverty because falling wages had narrowed the gap between the poorest and average earners. Thanks to the recession and economic crisis, 250,000 children have been taken out of poverty – despite nothing fundamental changing in their lives.
This measurement has done very little to improve our poorest communities. In fact during a period of record economic growth, rising living standards and significant levels of public spending between 1992 – 2008, the welfare bill soared, family breakdown hit new heights and youth unemployment remained entrenched.
In our paper Rethinking Child Poverty last year, the Centre for Social Justice highlighted how rather than being obsessed with income alone, if politicians were instead committed to dealing with educational inequality, building resilient families and helping people dependent on benefits become self-reliant, we could start a credible assault on the root causes of poverty to prevent it. Some have reacted angrily to this, mistaking our calls to broaden the definition of poverty as a request to abandon it. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Benjamin Disraeli’s ‘One Nation’ vision has again become the nub of political argument in recent months. But Disraeli actually wrote about two nations. He highlighted the scandalous divide between the poor and the rest. Well, all these years later, the British people remain gripped by deep social problems which wreak havoc in our poorest areas. If ministers have the courage to seize this precious opportunity on child poverty, we may at last begin to reach the housing estates Disraeli would be writing about today. For the sake of the children who deserve so much better, nothing could be more important than that.
This article first appeared in Total Politics