15 June 2012

Redefining a problem away
Faced with an issue that is very difficult to resolve there are two broad approaches: improve one’s efforts or redefine the issue away.

With child poverty the Tory Libdem government has opted for the second approach. It is clear that the government is now emphasising non-financial aspects of child poverty more and money less. Of course, poverty is not only about money, there are indeed other aspects of it such as ways of life and achievements and aspirations and that is already agreed by everyone, the other aspects being additions to not replacements for money; and religionising and demonising – blaming the poor for poverty – are not constructive responses to people in poverty. Despite a broad definition of child poverty, to put food on the table and clothes on the back, money is needed. To pay the rent and heating, even to get to work, money is needed. The Cabinet is full of rich men and as Bagehot said, “Poverty is an anomaly to rich people. It is very difficult to make out why people who want dinner do not ring the bell”.

The government has also doubted the validity of relative poverty, the measuring of it against a shifting median. The point it disregards is that people live in a society and should be able to take a full part in the life of that society: their ability to do so depends in part on their financial standing relative to their fellows; poverty excludes them. Relative poverty matters.

Low pay and high rents
I do wonder how far the government understands the issue of child poverty. It has also pointed for example at worklessness as a cause; but about three fifths of children in poverty have working parents, an inconvenient fact the government turns away from.

As part of the reduction in the welfare bill and in pursuit of the admirable principle that work should always pay, we should be looking not only at benefit levels and benefit qualifications but also at the levels of public subsidy to employers and landlords for low paid work and high rents. We should take a serious look at whether the present mandatory minimum wage is adequate and how realistically low pay can be improved. We should ask whether present housing benefits are encouraging high rents and whether rent controls are economically feasible or inevitably lead to a shortage of decent property to rent.

Let me acknowledge that child poverty is very stubborn and hard to crack. The last Labour government did much but in the end not enough. From 1998/99 to 2009/10 the proportion of children in families with incomes below 60 percent of the median net disposable income fell from 26 percent before housing costs to 20 percent; and from 34 percent after housing costs to 29 percent (Chapter 3, table 3.10ts, page 79 in Households below average income 1994/95-2010/11).

No one now expects the legal requirement to smash child poverty by 2020 to be achieved. The figures for 2010/11 show a welcome improvement but a deterioration in the future is forecast by the Institute for fiscal studies.

Child poverty in Cornwall
The national figures mask vast local differences. The Campaign to end child poverty (CECP) has estimated child poverty for constituencies, local authorities, and wards here: the Cornwall figures for mid-2011 show that the rate for the whole county is 17 percent; the five council wards with the lowest proportion of child poverty are Helston North, Probus, Roseland, Feock and Kea, and Mabe (6-7 percent); with the highest are Newlyn and Mousehole, Penzance East, Redruth North, Troon and Beacon, and Falmouth Penwerris (30-36 percent). Cornwall Council has published child poverty data for subwards for August 2008. Each subward has about 1500 people. The proportion of children in poverty ranges from 57.7 percent (Camborne South subward E01018995) to 2.4 percent (Saltash St Stephens subward E01018795).

City of London
Incidentally, the CECP data for Portsoken ward in the City of London shows that in mid-2011 40 percent of its children are in child poverty, worst than any ward in Cornwall, which will confound Cornish nationalists.

Does the government read?
Back to the government’s attempt to redefine child poverty away from money. There are two useful and very recent reports which explore the issues. Ending child poverty: the importance of income in measuring and tackling child poverty (May 2012, Save the children) and Ending child poverty by 2020: progress made and lessons learned (June 2012, Child poverty action group). Has the government read them? I ask because it certainly appears not to have learnt any lessons.


Daily Mirror 15 June 2012 : ‘Poverty isn’t all about money’: So says Iain Duncan Smith, who lives rent free in £2m mansion and earns £134,565. Smith is the Tory works and pensions secretary.

The Campaign to end child poverty explains its methodology for measuring child poverty here

Want to lift children out of poverty? Ask why they’re there Christian GUY, Guardian 15 June 2012. An argument that poverty is more than income.