From the TUC

Child poverty and unemployment

15 May 2009, by in Labour market, Society & Welfare

The latest child poverty figures were very disappointing; it is time to insist that there is no solution to children’s poverty that ignores the poverty of their parents.

Last week the newspapers gave the Government a kicking thoroughly examined the figures from the latest Households Below Average Income report. The focus for the comments was on the child poverty figures – understandably so, given the Government’s high profile commitment to end child poverty by 2020. But the report also provides the ammunition to back up the case for the TUC’s campaign for a large increase in Jobseeker’s Allowance, the main benefit for unemployed people.

In 1999, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown promised to end child poverty by 2020 and halve the number in poverty by 2010. At that time there were 3.4 million children in poverty (defined by the Government as living in a household with less than 60 percent of median income) so the interim target was to get this down to 1.7 million by 2010. The HBAI figures show that, in 2007/8,  there were still 2.9 million children living in poverty, and the number had actually risen slightly in the previous year. Given that the Budget announced almost no extra spending on poor children, the chances of hitting that target are small.

But child poverty isn’t actually the worst of it, though some Ministers give the impression that poverty doesn’t count unless it’s child poverty. When the Government was elected in 1997, there were 5 million working age adults in poverty; by 2007/8 this had risen to 5.6 million. (That is the picture when poverty is measured before taking housing costs into account, as the Government prefers; using the after housing costs basis preferred by most anti-poverty organisations, the increase was 900,000 to 7.5 million.)

The fact is that you can’t divorce child poverty from the poverty of the children’s parents. Children in workless families suffer from the family’s low overall level of benefits; holding down benefits hurts them, as well as the adults. This is particularly true for the children of unemployed people. Seventy per cent of the children in families that receive Jobseeker’s Allowance are poor – this is a higher risk of poverty than for any other group of children.

That is why Peter Kenway’s new report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation is so important. Peter makes a number of important points, but I was particularly struck by his arguments about just how miserly JSA is:

  • JSA for a single person is worth about a fifth of the amount that single adults on average actually spend;
  • Even in the poorest households, the average single person spends about twice as much as this;
  • It is equal to half the Government’s poverty line for single adults;
  • It is worth about 40% of what the general public think is needed for a minimum standard of living;
  • It is worth about half the Pension Credit and two-thirds of Retirement Pension.

In 1999, a study by researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine estimated that the minimum income needed for healthy living by a single working man aged 18-30 in the UK was £131.86 per week. At that time, the rate of JSA for a single person aged over 25 was £51.40 a week.

Last year, the Family Budget Unit at York University calculated that, excluding rent, a single working age adult needed an income of £157.84 a week “to maintain a minimum, socially acceptable quality of life.” 

It has always seemed to me that it is the worst kind of straw man argument to say the Government isn’t interested in raising benefit rates because they want to emphasise work as the main route. For one thing, in-work poverty is a significant problem (57% of working age people in poverty and 57% of children in poverty live in families where at least one person has a job.) 

Just as importantly, unless everyone gets a job, we have to have a strategy that helps those who try but fail to get jobs. If the Government would guarantee work for everyone, then it might be possible to forget about benefits. But, until they do that, I’ll continue demanding a large increase in JSA.