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How the Conservatives are ‘strengthening’ child poverty measures in the UK

How the Conservatives are ‘strengthening’ child poverty measures in the UK

On 1 July the Government announced that it was going to ‘strengthen’ the child poverty measure.

From the statement by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith MP, it is clear that the current range of child poverty measures, and accompanying targets, in the Child Poverty Act 2010 will be replaced by a statutory responsibility to report on only two measures: the proportion of children living in households that are workless, and long-term workless; and educational attainment at age 16 for all pupils and the most disadvantaged.

The government will also develop other measures and indicators of what the Secretary of State calls the ‘root causes’ of child poverty to underpin a strategy on children’s life chances. It is unclear to what extent, if at all, poverty in work will feature, despite the fact that well over half (in fact, some two-thirds) of children living in households in poverty have at least one parent in work.

The duties and provisions of the Child Poverty Act will also be repealed. And ‘child poverty’ will be dropped from the remit of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission.

This story goes back several years. Iain Duncan Smith came into office under the 2010-15 coalition government committed to the Centre for Social Justice analysis  highlighting worklessness, educational failure, debt, drug and alcohol addiction and family breakdown, and has repeatedly identified these as causes of poverty since then.

The consultation document on changing the child poverty measure in 2012 also hinted that these might be integrated into it. Many academics, NGOs and others responded to the consultation, with a large number of critical responses (for example, from the Poverty and Social Exclusion group of academics).

The Conservative Party’s 2015 election manifesto repeated a similar list of ‘root causes’ of poverty and said that better measures of child poverty would be introduced to drive change, by ‘recognizing’ these. There were rumours that the Treasury had blocked the proposed new child poverty measure not on principle but because it was unclear how to measure some elements. What seems to have happened now is that the DWP is going ahead with the feasible elements, pending more work on others.

Opposition within the government also seems to have hardened to the relative income measure of poverty (60 per cent of median disposable equivalized household income). The Child Poverty Act in fact also contains complementary measures, including a fixed income poverty line rising with prices (confusingly labelled ‘absolute’); and a combination of relative low income and material deprivation. Persistent poverty and extreme low income and deprivation combined were added later. But the headline measure – used internationally, including in comparisons across the European Union) – is 60 per cent of median contemporary income.

Indeed, before the 2010 election it was made clear by the Conservatives that they acknowledged and would act on relative poverty when David Cameron recognised it. Yet this is the measure now criticized by ministers. First, they argue that movements in the pension or overall income affect child poverty numbers. But this must be the case for a measure depending on median income, because it is about falling behind typical incomes. The existence of several measures in the 2010 Act is then valuable, in that we can also assess if more children are suffering material deprivation or living on an income fixed in relation to prices.

Secondly, ministers label the poverty line as arbitrary. But with any poverty line, people on one side or the other will not have vastly different lives. If we try to identify those in poverty, we need some dividing line. We can argue about whether 60 per cent of median income is the best, and there are currently explorations in Europe to find minimum budget levels; but this does not obviate the need.

Thirdly, ministers argue relative income is too narrow – more income does not transform lives. This takes no account of the evidence of improvements in children’s lives when real incomes have increased, as in this review, for example. And it belies what must be the core of any poverty measure: having insufficient resources to participate fully in the society in which one lives.

This is the key problem with this redefinition of the child poverty measure. Because of a desire to incorporate certain supposed causes / consequences / correlates, it neglects the need for a focus on the essential factor distinguishing poverty from other conditions. Including all possible dimensions that may (or may not) be associated with poverty in a measure merely leads to confusion. As we know from the media, family breakdown or drug addiction, for example, may affect many families who live well above the poverty line.

This confusion arises from ministers’ real concern not being with child poverty in the here and now, but instead with two other issues. The first is social mobility, or life chances: the extent to which current circumstances dictate future outcomes. This is important. But it is not the same as child poverty. As Ruth Lister argues, children are human beings, not human becomings. And it is much harder to create equal opportunities for the future if poverty is not tackled in the present.

The second concern is ‘social justice’, which to the current government appears to have the limited meaning of a focus on the ‘most disadvantaged’. Indeed, the five causes of poverty cited by ministers were originally seen as markers of an ‘emerging underclass’. This tends to suggest that attention on a small group with multiple difficulties will solve the problem.

Ministers previously suggested that income is only one dimension of poverty. At least the government has undertaken to continue to publish Households Below Average Income each year, so that we will be able to track annually how many people live in households on under average (median) household income – including those below the various thresholds we now use as poverty lines, as described above. But the government now appears to have abandoned income as a measure completely, along with any targets to monitor progress towards eliminating child poverty.

This blog originally appeared on Policy Press and is cross-posted here with permission.

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