First 100 Days - Eradicating Poverty
Moussa Haddad is Senior Policy & Research Officer at Child Poverty Action Group.
The next government will inherit a child poverty crisis. According to Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) estimates, there are four million children living in poverty in 2014/15 after housing costs are taken into account. This is an increase of 400,000 since 2010, and 300,000 more are projected to be tipped into poverty by 2020.
Even as all the main parties remain committed to ending child poverty by 2020, we are moving dramatically in the opposite direction. This amounts to a costly failure: CPAG estimates that child poverty costs the country at least £29 billion a year in services that deal with the effects of poverty, and, in the longer-term, in losses to the economy from wasted potential. It is also a social and a moral failure, denying millions of children the childhoods they deserve. Focusing on child poverty requires us to address structural inequalities that produce poverty across society as a whole: it is an issue that affects and should concern us all. So what can a new government do about this widening social deficit?
The first thing to be said is that there is no silver bullet. Poverty is absolutely not inevitable – and looking at what has worked in other times and places is valuable – but nor is it something that can be eradicated overnight. For that reason, poverty must be tackled in three stages: immediate actions to make poverty the priority it needs to be; practical steps that can move us in the right direction over the course of the next Parliament; and constructing a long-term plan for ending child poverty once and for all.
The incoming government cannot do everything in its first 100 days, but it can use that time to strike the right tone and to set out its priorities. Given the extent of the looming crisis, one of its first steps must be to commit to making child poverty a national priority in its programme for government. A new government should use its first Spending Review to mandate preventative spending today to avoid the enormous costs of child poverty tomorrow, changing the way government thinks about public spending so that it takes a long-term view of costs and benefits. It must signal an end to the Robin Hood in-reverse that has characterised austerity politics. Research from LSE, Manchester and York universities has shown that the poorest half of the population have lost income over this Parliament while those in the richest half have gained, all without any overall impact on deficit reduction. More of the same is not socially sustainable.
One significant symptom of hardship is the rapidly rising use of food banks, with the Trussell Trust network alone giving emergency food to over 1 million people in 2014/15, more than a third of them children. CPAG’s experience in providing welfare rights advice in a food bank since 2013 – together with research looking into the experineces of more than a thousand food bank users across the country⁵ – has given us a rich understanding of the drivers of the phenomenon. In the majority of cases, food bank use is driven by an acute financial crisis caused by the failures of the benefits system. Urgent reforms are needed at two levels: first, technical changes to existing benefit rules and regulations, as well as improvements in administration within the Department for Work and Pensions, must be made to ensure that delays and errors in the benefit system – which are causing significant hardship to families – are minimised. A progressive government must also commit to an independent review of the benefits sanctions system, to ensure that sanctions are genuinely used as a last resort. Second, the next government must fix the system of emergency support – the safety net beneath the safety net of local welfare provision, short-term benefit advances, and hardship payments – that is designed to protect people when things do go wrong. This should include raising awareness of these provisions, simplifying their application procedures and ensuring that dedicated funding is in place to meet need.
Another immediate step the incoming government can make is to help protect families from rising living costs. Children’s benefits have been chipped away at over the course of the last Parliament, with child benefit losing 14 per cent of its value during that time. A ‘triple lock’ for children’s benefits, as for pensions, would ensure that they fall no further – and are gradually restored to their former value. Better work incentives under Universal Credit – particularly increased work allowances and new allowances for second earners – are a crucial aspect of making sure that Universal Credit’s poverty-fighting potential is realised.
Perhaps the most important thing the new government must do is reinvigorate the fight against child poverty with a concrete and credible plan for its eradication. This is not the place to write that plan, but we know from past experiences what works. During the 2000s, financial support for families with children, helping more parents into paid work and ensuring childcare provision, were key pillars of the success in reducing child poverty by over a million. To that we can add action on such structural issues as low pay, the housing crisis and education. Overcoming child poverty requires a truly cross-governmental approach, and a genuinley progressive government must be honest about the scale of the challenge – and use that as a driver in producing a plan for eradicating poverty that touches on all these areas, both tackling the long-term determinants of poverty and alleviating it in the here and now.
Whatever form the new government takes, it will contain parties and politicians who have loudly proclaimed their commitment to ending child poverty. Today, the economy is growing again and the fiscal deficit is falling – but a costly social crisis is looming. Now is the time for politicians to make good on those commitments, and give our children the childhoods they deserve. The hard work starts now.