Lib Dems need to champion new ideas for tackling child poverty
Figures released this week by the IFS show that the UK will witness a severe and sustained increase in child poverty over the coming decade, with almost a quarter of British children set to be living in relative poverty by 2020, compared to one fifth in 2009/10. This is despite a projected 7 per cent reduction in real terms median income over the next three years, reducing the amount of income it takes to cross the poverty line.
These figures highlight the growing gulf between the targets set out under the Child Poverty Act, which require the government to reduce relative child poverty to 10% by 2020, and what is achievable under the direction of current and previous policies. Although the Labour government’s efforts managed to lift 800,000 children out of poverty between 1998/99 and 2009/10, this falls far short of its goal of halving child poverty by 2010. A further 900,000 children would have to have been lifted out of poverty in just one year to reach that target. IFS projections also show that even without the change in government, it is likely that child poverty would have increased to 2020.
Nevertheless, the IFS are clear that the goal of ending child poverty is further undermined by the Coalition’s policies. Their forecast suggests that planned changes to taxes and benefits will put 200,000 additional children into relative poverty by 2015/16. Although the Coalition’s Universal Credit is predicted to reduce relative poverty significantly, its positive impact is outweighed by other measures, particularly the decision to link increases in benefits using CPI as opposed to RPI. The IFS modelling also shows that increasing employment and earnings alone are not capable of getting us to the 2020 goal, and significant redistribution would also be required.
Increasingly, the child poverty agenda has drifted away from the realms of political reality and the IFS projections provide a startling glimpse of the mess our approach to child poverty is now in. The Coalition’s recently published child poverty strategy is a hodge-podge of existing plans and proposals, and lacks a clear vision or strategy for achieving the legally-binding targets. The IFS modelling, taking into account planned changes to taxes and benefits, and modelling different employment scenarios, demonstrates that the current child poverty strategy is wholly incapable of ending child poverty. An £18 billion cut to the Department for Work and Pensions is also undermining any efforts which aim to address this.
The IFS puts a big challenge to the government in its report – if you think we’re wrong, and you really can meet the child poverty targets, then show us how. Yet, at the moment, while paying lip service to the idea of ending child poverty, the Coalition is largely ignoring the gap between what current plans are set to achieve and what targets have been set out in law, which risks rendering the Child Poverty Act meaningless. The fiscal constraints the Coalition is operating under clearly make further spending unrealistic, and this will remain the case up to 2020.
The Liberal Democrats started out with a raft of ideas on tackling poverty, which seemed to have dropped off the Coalition’s agenda. It seems strange that while Government policies are leading to increases in child poverty Sarah Teather, the Liberal Democrat Minister for Children, is claiming that “children across the country will have a fairer start in life because Liberal Democrats fought for it and Liberal Democrats in Government made it happen” in her recent party conference speech. Does this expose a rift in the Coalition or is it a blind spot in Lib Dem influence?
The disjuncture between the scale of the challenge and the action that government can realistically take has led the IFS to suggest that the current targets should be revisited. This is controversial in the child poverty movement, but is worth further consideration. Importantly, the concept of child poverty remains misunderstood by the public and has is largely removed from their everyday concerns.
A survey by the Department for Work and Pensions has shown that there is a lack of public awareness about the nature and causes of child poverty. A majority blamed child poverty on parental addiction and family breakdown rather than low pay and unemployment. Focusing on targets, measurements and poverty thresholds doesn’t help because it turns child poverty into a statistical concepts rather than a tangible social problem.
Concerns about child poverty, and poverty more generally, need to be placed at the heart of the current debate around living standards and the economic insecurity facing ordinary families. Linking child poverty to everyday concerns around wages, job security, and the costs of childcare, energy and food, would help to embed anti-poverty strategies in mainstream political debates. To achieve public support for the child poverty agenda it needs to be reframed in a way that clearly links it to the issues that the most people are concerned about.
The research released by the IFS provides justification for re-evaluating our approach to addressing child poverty. Instead of treating child poverty as an isolated issue it needs to be tied into the wider policy context on which it strongly depends. This will help to gain traction with the public as well as provide a more meaningful route to lifting children out of poverty. It is essential that the targets set under the Child Poverty Act are not left hanging as symbols of political rhetoric gone wrong but instead provide the impetus for developing an ambitious and achievable route to improving the lives of children.