CHILD POVERTY: YESTERDAY AND TOMORROW

16 May 2011

Labour’s record

We now have the final data on Labour’s work to reduce poverty, the figures for 2009/10 when child poverty fell. Read it in this Department for work and pensions (DWP) report Households below average income (May 2011). The Institute for financial studies (IFS) has published a comprehensive analysis of this, Poverty and inequality in the UK: 2011.

In Labour’s first full year, 1998/99, there were 3.5 million children in the UK in relative poverty; that was 26 percent of children. In 2009/10 there were 2.6 million, 20 percent.

Reducing child poverty by nearly a million is a worthy achievement from which children in Cornwall benefited. It was a substantial fall but not nearly enough. Labour missed its target to halve it by 2010 and the end-target of 2020 is candidly out of reach. Labour began promisingly but lost focus and drive and faltered in the middle of its period in office which saw a mortifying rise in child poverty as my earlier posts of 2008 and 2009 miserably record. I see no reason to retract what I said then:

“Some good work has been done, especially before 2005, as Labour half-heartedly tackled the leftover misery of an uncivilised version of Toryism which doubled the number of children in poverty after 1979. Labour had to balance on one hand the need to encourage enterprise and justly enable the reward of achievement and on the other hand the need to redistribute wealth to help those with life’s short straw. That takes skill and resolve and the disagreeable truth is that the Labour government lacked them. It also lacked the courage to challenge the self-absorbed to see beyond themselves and see a society; and it did not understand, for all the chatter of a moral compass and religion, the difference between rewarding success and indulging greed.

“It didn’t have to be like this. There has been enough money since 1997 to achieve the noble ambition. Yes, it might well be impossible to persuade most of the wealthy that the children of the poor deserve a break. It takes political and moral skill and determination to persuade middling workers, who are the vast majority and who often struggle themselves, that children in poverty should be a major priority, that there is a bill that must be paid. It takes courage to make them a priority. A supine Labour government wasn’t up to the task.” (2009)

Looking back on child poverty and the Labour years, a curate’s egg performance. The welcome strong beginning and end cannot eradicate the failure of the other years and the disturbing causes of that failure which say much about Labour under whom inequality also increased (see for example data on the Gini coefficient, pages 30 and 31 of the DWP May 2011 report and this IFS report). The party should understand its record here (and in affordable housing, another failure) and devise new policies and acquire lasting resolve.

And now

The Tory Libdem government does not seem to have a convincing strategy to continue to reduce child poverty. Indeed, it is pursuing policies that a report from the IFS says will likely lead to an increase in child poverty. This would be a moral scandal.

The Tory Libdems have played down the role of more money in reducing poverty and I agree that it isn’t only a question of money though I am wary when millionaire politicians say that. However, more money, from benefits and from work with decent pay and from tax credits, for example, are key to a significant reduction. A rise in child poverty because of government policies would irretrievably mark the Libdems as one of the parties of reaction and regress.

Poverty and work

I have remarked before on the evidence that more than half of children in poverty live in families where at least one adult works (and see page 12 of Households below average income, May 2011). Getting people into work will not of itself end poverty. There is a need to see that wages are more than minimal. A few months ago I wrote about the need for a living wage in Cornwall and I am about to return to the topic.

I am alarmed about future progress on child poverty.

Cornwall

The report Child poverty needs assessment for Cornwall 2011 looks in detail at child poverty in Cornwall. The data is from August 2008. Cornwall as a whole has a lower proportion of child poverty than England as a whole but its incidence varies vastly across the county. Look at the definition of poverty in this report and that in the DWP report. There are also more detailed Cornwall maps here.

Definitions

The figures that I cite are the ‘before housing costs’ ones; the May 2011 DWP report gives ones for ‘after housing costs’ too; see page 224 of the report for what these terms involve. Definitions of relative and absolute poverty are on pages 10 and 11 of the report.

Earlier posts on child poverty

Child poverty in Cornwall 5 August 2007

A mortifying failure 11 June 2008

Shameful failure 23 May 2009

Deprivation matters 11 June 2010

Making people poor 16 December 2010


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