For the first time since 1999, child poverty rates in the UK rose last year by 200,000. Labelled a ‘moral disgrace’ by children’s charity Barnardo’s, Labour might be on the other end of soundbite politics for once.
Since Labour set a target to eradicate child poverty by 2020, the number of children in poverty has gone down by roughly 500,000. Alone, this sounds pretty reasonable. Half a million lives improved for the better seems pretty good going.
But consider the fact that the government missed its own target by more than the same 500,000 and you have a rather more gloomy outlook. Still, I have a certain amount of sympathy for the government. Say what you want about Brownite technocracy, his tax credits are holding huge numbers of families above the poverty line.
Nor can the right criticise policies of handouts. Loathed to use their slogans as I am, Labour’s ‘welfare-to-work’ policies have helped to encourage many parents back into work. In fact, one of the key reasons that the goal was missed is a dramatic rise in in-work poverty.
Another mitigating factor comes from the way poverty is measured in this country. Incomes of below 60% of the national median are classed as impoverished. Incomes at the top end of the scale are growing very rapidly and this pushes up the poverty line, without life at the lower end of society necessarily deteriorating. As Guy Palmer from the New Policy Institute puts it, “the immediate reasons why the child poverty target was missed was because the number of children needing help to escape poverty has gone up too”.
Although no-one can escape the fact that the target was missed, to even set it was hugely ambitious and I would love to see all opposition parties agree to a similar one. The reasons for the failure will become clearer with the annual Institute for Fiscal Studies ‘Poverty and Inequality in Britain’ publication. Assuming last year’s rise was just a one off, the government deserves more credit for the overall improvements it has made. Still, the set back is enormously disappointing.
Clearly much more needs to be done, whether the targets are reachable or not. The Department of Work and Pensions has already announced new measures, including a ‘refocusing’ of £150m of resources and a commitment to the extension of the New Deal programmes. But the government needs to recognise the extent of ‘in-work’ poverty and if it stands by its target, it will have to further extend its beloved system of tax credits.
There is no reason why they cannot do so, but there is a danger if they do not. The decision to change the way the child poverty target is measure has already been taken and we need to be careful that Labour does not revert to spinning the stats. We need progress for hard-working families, not another Treasury trick. That really would be a moral disgrace.