From the TUC

New Conservative policy on poverty?

09 Oct 2009, by in Society & Welfare

Earlier this week David Cameron told us that the Conservative Party was committed to to “fight for the poorest“, and that he wants every child to have the same opportunities that were afforded to him. He is concerned about the problems of “poverty, crime, addiction, failing schools, sink estates, broken homes.” And at a conference fringe Andrew Selous (Shadow Minister for Work and Pensions) reportedly informed attendees that the Conservatives would be focused on dealing with “the root causes of poverty in a rigorous ways”. What does this mean?

At the moment we can only really guess. Mr Selous has pledged to “widen the definitions of poverty“, so as to “better be able to measure real success”. If this means scrapping the current focus on relative deprivation (the 60% of median income definition has been widely accepted) it would be very bad news – but at present it’s far from clear whether or not this is the Conservative position.

He has also argued that poverty is best tackled by “creating more wealth”, and enabling businesses to grow in “jobs deserts”. Investment in poor communities is to be welcomed. However, most anti-poverty groups would argue that poverty is best eradicated by increasing the incomes of the poor and reducing income inequality – which does not appear to be the Conservative position, particularly given the luke warm support that Mr Selous’ speech gave to tax credits:

Labour have concentrated almost entirely on tax credits to relieve poverty. I do not believe that tweaking a benefit here or a tax credit there will ever get to the heart of the problems that trap so many of our nation’s families in poverty.

In fact tax credits have been a huge anti-poverty success – TUC analysis last year found that, together with the minimum wage, tax credits have meant that low paid workers with children are at least 25% better off than they would have been otherwise. I think it’s fair to say that this is significantly more of an impact than we would have seen had poverty reduction been left to trickle down economics – as IFS analysis suggests.

We have also heard a lot from the Conservatives about the family. We know that tax breaks for marriage remain a Conservative policy, and that there’s been much talk about how marriage can help promote stability and end poverty. Whether stable families can be promoted through tax breaks, or whether married families are more likely to leave poverty than others when societies are characterised by inequality, remains to be seen.

The Conservatives’ acknowledgment of poverty’s existence, and of the misery is causes, is welcome. But perhaps it is optimistic to believe that poverty can be tackled without real investment and wealth redistribution. We know that Labour haven’t eradicated poverty, and that there is much more that could be done. But I also trust the JRF when they tell us that:

The UK’s experience in the 1980s and 1990s showed that the strategy of hoping that growth in living standards at the top would ‘trickle down’ to those at the bottom did not work.

Lets hope that new Tory poverty committments will be based on evidence as well as rhetoric.