March 28, 2007

Child Poverty D:Ream Still On or Moral Disgrace?

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.


- 3 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. James

    The key point is this: “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.”

    Poverty can be defined in one of two ways: (i) those without basic necessities, such as food, shelter and education (absolute poverty); or (ii) your definition, namely those below the average or some arbitrary comparative income level (relative poverty).

    Britain has much of (ii), but it is highly questionable how much of (i) remains. Certainly nothing resembling C19 poor houses, especially if the council estates in Britain with which I am familiar are anything to go by. The children therein all attend state schools, and do not seem conspicuously malnourished or inadequately clothed. There are social problems in such areas, but poverty isn’t necessarily the cause of them.

    Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, but I would suggest that category (i) – absolute poverty – is of far greater concern than category (ii). I would imagine that, aside from party flunkies, Cuba has more evenly spread income than Britain. But overall Britain is far richer. I know which country I’d rather be poor in.

    28 Mar 2007, 15:50

  2. Really interesting point that you raise about being very poor in Cuba or the UK. If I’m honest I don’t know what the answer is. Almost identical life expectancies…how dyu measure it?
    The New Economics Foundation’s Happiness Index puts Cuba way above the UK…but of course, there are immense flaws in that.
    I genuinely don’t know which country I’d rather be poor in.

    Depending of course where one draws the absolute poverty line, I’d have to agree that the poverty problems of Africa of course exceed our own. Still, I hope your comment isn’t denying that more should be done to help those at the lower end of the income scale in this country.

    thanks for your comments either way!

    29 Mar 2007, 00:55

  3. James

    Well have a look at the thought police that control political and public life in Cuba for a start. Then check out the requirements for working in the fields (which may still be in place) and national service etc. We in Britain think our state oppressive, but Cuba is one example of one that is very much worse. I’d rather live in a democracy myself, and for all its faults Britain is much more democratic than most other countries round the globe.

    Back to child poverty. Polly Pot’s at it again in the Guardian today. Bascially she reviles anyone being rich and thinks that if the state doesn’t provide, people cannot have.

    As always she ignores the decreasing marginal gains of increased wealth. For example, £250,000 buys you a new Rolls Royce, but it won’t be a car that is 10 times better than a second hand S-Class, for example. Nor is a £30,000 Lexus twice as good as a £15,000 Toyota, let alone 10 times better than a used Mondeo.

    Similarly a 1982 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild (costing many thousands of pounds) will taste nicer than some two buck chuck from Tescos, but only the elite of the wine world will be able to tell the difference from a £30 Margaret River wine and most people couldn’t separate it from a ten quid bottle from Oddbins.

    Luxury goods aside, money buys housing in areas with lower crime, and access to better schools. But most agree that the government should be cracking down on crime and improving the quality of state education. That, not income disparity, should be its focus (of course, higher taxes might be needed to fund police and teachers, but that’s not the same thing as simply pointing the finger at Alan Sugar and complaining that he’s richer than me).

    Thanks for your comments on tuition fees btw (guessing it was you), I’ve put together a short response.

    30 Mar 2007, 12:46


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