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Five myths peddled about child poverty

1. The UK’s Child Poverty Targets are a hangover from the Gordon Brown era, made up by the Labour government and imposed on its successor

There is a view peddled by some commentators that Britain’s child poverty targets are some sort of political aberration, invented by Gordon Brown to impose on his successors. Yet the basis for the most widely quoted UK child poverty target, that of the number of children living in families below 60 per cent of the median income, is a well established international measure, used by UNICEF and most OECD countries. UNICEF and the OECD regularly publish country-level league tables on poverty that use relative measures. The United States is almost alone among Western countries in not using this measure, preferring instead an absolute one that is based on the basic food needs of families in the 1960s, which is regarded as completely inadequate by most experts. Moreover, the Child Poverty Act 2010 – which enshrines the UK’s targets – was passed with cross-party support.

2. A relative child poverty target is a measure of inequality, not poverty, and can therefore never be met because incomes higher up the scale keep rising

The same commentators often assert that a relative child poverty target is a measure of inequality, not poverty. This is plain wrong – the target measures the distance from the median (the middle number), not the mean or the top. Bankers and footballers could get even richer and it would not shift the median point of the income distribution. It’s long been recognised that poverty is not just about lacking the basics like food and shelter, but about not being able to take part in the everyday activities and opportunities that most people take for granted. By definition, this can only be judged by reference to the standards experienced by the wider society, so poverty has to be measured on a relative basis. Any idea that we should revert simply to an absolute standard as the only measure would take social policy back decades.

For good measure, it should also be pointed out that the Child Poverty Act 2010 not only contains a target to reduce the proportion of children living in relative poverty, but also targets for:

  • Combined low income and material deprivation – to reduce the proportion of children who live in material deprivation and have a low income to less than five per cent
  • Persistent poverty – to reduce the proportion of children that experience long periods of relative poverty, with the specific target to be set at a later date; and
  • ‘Absolute’ poverty – to reduce the proportion of children who live below an income threshold fixed in real terms to less than five per cent.

So the Act already acknowledges and reflects the different ways in which income poverty can be understood.

3. Children do not grow up in poverty if their parents are in work

Lots of the commentary on child poverty assumes that if families move off welfare and into work, they escape poverty. But that is not true. ippr’s research shows that most children living in poverty are from families that work, a problem which has been exacerbated by the squeeze on workers since the start of the economic downturn (including a sharp increase in part-time and temporary jobs, plus pay freezes and reductions in working hours to avoid redundancies). Here are the figures:

  • The proportion of poor children living in working households increased to 61 per cent in 2008/09, up from 50 per cent in 2005/06
  • There are now 1.7 million poor children in working households compared to 1.1 million in workless households
  • 60 per cent of working-poor families have children.

4. Improving family incomes does not succeed in changing children’s life chances

There is incontrovertible evidence linking income poverty in childhood to poorer outcomes in adult life, and there is direct evidence that social mobility is harmed by child poverty and higher levels of economic inequality. It is true that strong, loving parenting can be a more important determinant of children’s life chances than family income, and that improving income alone will not always increase children’s prospects.

But commentators who stress the role of parenting over income often ignore the fact that the two are linked – good parenting is easier if you have a decent income. And let’s not forget that Labour’s child poverty strategy always featured a number of elements tied together: improving education and health, providing better housing and local environments for children, helping parents back into work – all alongside raising family incomes. What’s more, we should also care about children’s experiences as children, not simply where they end up in adult life. Growing up poor in a rich country is no fun, even with good local services.

5. Labour only cared about income transfers to poor families, not services for children or workless adults

Did Labour believe that ‘poverty plus a pound’ equalled fairness, as Nick Clegg put it, and that income transfers alone would tackle poverty? A quick glance at the record shows that is nonsense: Labour created nursery places for all 3 and 4-year-olds, and started offering the free nursery places for disadvantaged 2-year-olds that are now being expanded by the Coalition. It created Sure Start Children’s Centres in every community, introduced the literacy hour to raise educational attainment in primary schools, expanded parenting and family learning classes, set in place a whole range of welfare-to-work strategies, and worked hard to ‘make work pay’. The distinguished US social policy expert Jane Waldfogel has laid this all out very clearly in her overview of this era, calling it ‘Britain’s War on Poverty‘.

None of this is to deny that progress on reducing child poverty stalled during Labour’s third term (although the IFS’s latest estimates are that a further 300,000 children will have been lifted out of relative poverty between 2008/09 and 2010/11 as a result of the last government’s measures). In my experience, too often in the run-up to Budgets Labour ministers spent too little time looking at the right mix of measures to meet the long-term target and instead focused too much on the number of children who could be lifted out of poverty in any one year. Meantime, fiscal pressures are such that any government elected in 2010 would have had to do some rethinking on how to eradicate child poverty by 2020.

So what does need to change? Here are some thoughts for a progressive way forward:

Focus on the under-5s. Frank Field and Graham Allen are right to prioritise this age group, for all the obvious reasons about early childhood development and its importance. We should focus our resources on this age group over the coming years, rather than all children up to the age of 18, as now. But we don’t need to trade off services against income: instead, we should focus both on the under-5s.

Allow new, free childcare and nursery education services to count against the Child Poverty target, just as income transfers do. Allowing free services to count against income (by putting a cash value on the service and ascribing this to recipients) would help to better balance policymaking incentives between improving family budgets and investing in services. Free and affordable childcare must be our priority, alongside expanded nursery education. This will help families to work and improve child development outcomes.

Support measures to tackle in-work poverty. We can begin to reduce the number of children in working poor families by making bigger rises in the National Minimum Wages, improvements in the utilisation of skills, so as to raise productivity and wages, and instituting a Living Wage where it can be secured.

Spread work more evenly across households. Child poverty risks decrease substantially in dual-earner households, and a fairer spread of employment opportunity helps to decrease inequality. The Nordic countries have the best records on child poverty because they provide universal affordable (or free) pre-schooling and support for dual-earner households, through flexible employment rights. Their family pattens are very similar to the UK’s but they do a better job of providing the right public services and enabling families to work. These are critical to the drive to reduce child poverty.

To conclude, poverty is about more than money. It is about a lack of power and what Richard Sennett once memorably called the ‘hidden injuries of class‘. Eradicating child poverty will take more than money. But peddling myths about poverty targets and income transfers will take us backwards, not forwards.

That’s it for 2010. A very Happy Xmas and prosperous New Year to my small but growing band of readers!

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