Child Poverty: Alive And Kicking

It came as a surprise to me when I learned that, a very long time ago, all three major British political parties signed up to a target to eliminate child poverty in this country by 2020. Surprising in part because the elimination of poverty in any group of people is ambitious, but mainly the surprise stems from the Coalition Government’s complete failure to stop hundreds of thousands of families falling into financial hardship. With what looks like a third recession (the second ‘ made in Downing Street’ slump in as many years) on the way, it’s interpretive that state assistance is in place, particularly for households with low earners. Indeed, in times of economic growth, it’s estimated that £19 billion would have to be spent to fulfil the pledge. The figure will no doubt be higher with issues of unemployment, underemployment, and stagnating wages that will continue to plague this country for years. The fundamental contradiction, though, is between the government’s anti-equality agenda and the fact that, by definition, the elimination of poverty is the reduction of inequality. Furthermore, there is a surprisingly poor understanding of what poverty is. I don’t know what foreign governments definition is, but under 2010 legislation Britain has two definitions. The first is Relative Poverty which is simply household income beneath 60% of the median for a household. Alternatively, there’s Absolute Poverty which is household income beneath 60% of the 2010 median (adjusted for inflation). (As the names suggest, the New Labour government believed that real terms incomes would rise, not fall. As a result, there are currently more people living in absolute poverty than relative poverty.) Some might fail to see how living on half the median household income is ‘really that bad’. These people probably have lived on comfortable middle class incomes for all their lives, and should try writing a budget for a family of four of £21,000 a year and meeting rent, utilities, transport, food, insurance… the numbers barely add up. That’s why few experts question the definition: below such a level, people will almost certainly be marginalised in the economy and society. Most of us would agree, in principle, that no child deserves the disadvantages of a youth spent battling hardship. I’d like to think that even ardent right-wingers (i.e. Ron Paul, Caroline Flint) But the difficulty lies in the practicality of eliminating the problem. In order to increase the incomes of households with children, the government can either raise benefits, raise the minimum wage, or lower costs associated with raising a family. The ideal, catch-all plan would encompass all three. And looking at that list, the only step the Coalition is making towards any of its points is partial subsidy of childcare through tax credits to be awarded from 2015 onwards, which will be of great comfort to jobless parents who are rationing hearting today. I don’t see a Conservative and Liberal Democrat government rolling out a living wage, or reversing any part of its demolition of the welfare state. Nor do I see a Labour government being able to turn things around so comprehensively in 54 months. Time to drop the pretence. Child poverty will still be there in 7 years’ time.