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Child poverty: all not quite what it seems?

Child poverty: all not quite what it seems?

The government will no doubt have breathed a collective sigh of relief when the widely anticipated child poverty figures were finally released this week. They do not show the stark rises in child poverty that many were predicting. Tony Blair made the unprecedented commitment to end child poverty by 2020 back in 1999; a commitment that was subsequently enshrined in law and which - in principle at least - all parties have signed up to. Child poverty did indeed decline under New Labour, albeit perhaps not as fast or as far as many would have liked. This marked a period when significant progress was made in reducing child poverty and much research has documented the wide-ranging positive outcomes that arose from this, and not just for individual children’s lives.

Much has changed; and with the election of the last Coalition government and the subsequent victory of the Conservative government, experts agree that this decline in child poverty has been halted and the recent figures would support this view. It is perhaps not surprising that the stall in the reduction of child poverty is yet to be better captured in official statistics. The statistics released this week relate to the period 2013/4. The major welfare reforms that have impacted those in poverty were enacted in the 2012 Welfare Reform Act, with most of the major changes coming in 2013 (for example the introduction of Universal Credit and changes to disability and housing benefits as well as the introduction of the benefit cap). The full impact of these changes, along with others, is only likely to be revealed over time. Of course, we also know that there is more – indeed much more – to come in terms of welfare cuts. The impact of recent cuts to benefits as well as the many still to come will play out over the period of next parliament, although their effects will be felt for much longer. So next year’s, and future years’, statistics may be less forgiving – although of course that assumes the measures will remain the same, which of course, they probably won’t.

These bald statistics are one thing but they tell us nothing about the lived experience of poverty in Britain today. Researchers, community workers and others on the front line are all reporting desperate and shameful levels of hardship on the ground. Experts from many different disciplines are deeply concerned about these issues as evidenced by repeated letters to national press from economists to social policy experts, to those working in medicine. There are too many examples to note for this short blog, but evidence is emerging that changes to welfare have produced a ‘perfect storm’ where many families already facing precarious and vulnerable circumstances are being made ever more precarious and more vulnerable. These accounts of real life experience are graphic, harrowing and often tragic. Stories have been made public through academic research, some journalists’ accounts and most often through the use of social media.

There are many examples of people being forced to move after the death of a child because they are deemed to have a spare room and could no longer afford to stay in homes they had sometimes lived in for much of their adult lives, of people quite literally starving from lack of access to money or food, of people driven to suicide and suicide attempts, at least in part, through the sheer despair that changes to welfare have wrought on their lives, and of people dying after being declared fit for work.

One or two isolated cases could perhaps be understood, but these are not isolated cases. The consistency in the stories is palpable and if viewed collectively this evidence of human suffering, much of which is preventable, is damming and shameful. Next week we will see figures released (after pressure from within parliament and a public petition which followed an earlier freedom of information request) which will show how many people have died amongst Incapacity Benefit and Employment Support Allowance claimants since 2011, including those who have died since being declared fit for work. The statistics will tell their own story but if the cases that have circulated thus far are anything to go by, then these statistics are unlikely to make for pleasant reading.

So once again we find ourselves in muddy waters, where the inevitable debates over what causes and constitutes poverty will overshadow the more important reality of what it means to be poor or reliant on welfare in Britain today. The focus on child poverty is perhaps too narrow and to a degree a little misleading (although of course no child should have to live in poverty). Children live in families, and it is within families that the harshest impacts of poverty are being felt. This applies to families both with and without children (and evidence suggests that single adults and young adults are particularly badly affected by poverty).

It is important to remember also that the vast majority of children in poverty live in families where someone works. Working poverty is perhaps the biggest elephant in the room. Not only is it a problem that is rapidly increasing (and to a degree not completely understood), but it is a problem which is rarely acknowledged and all too often obliterated by a fascination with the largely mythical but obstinately powerful idea of the ‘welfare scrounger’, supposedly sleeping a life a way on benefits.

The sheer brutality of recent policy changes, the misery and deep hardship being quite deliberately wrought on people who are all too often already experiencing much hardship and difficulty in their lives is frankly, nothing short of a national disgrace. Unless we can force a wider debate on poverty which takes us away from the simplistic and popular rhetoric around the supposed ‘shirkers’ and the ‘skivers’ and which recognises the realities of poverty in Britain today, we are unlikely to make much progress.

Earlier this week David Cameron set out his vision for ‘one nation’ in which hard work would pay, and the link between effort and reward would be made more obvious. I wonder if the very many people working in sometimes two or three low paid, hard labour jobs (like care work and cleaning work) and who struggle to move far away from poverty or to get any real security in their lives will feel any comfort or optimism from these words. I suspect not.