What is happening to child poverty?
Measures, measures everywhere and not a drop of sense. This morning George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith put their new child poverty strategy out to consultation with the claim that they have reduced child poverty by 300,000 to date, while at the same time denigrating the yardstick they appear to be performing so well against. So what exactly is going on with respect to child poverty in the UK?
The truth is that, on any sensible measure, child poverty is on the rise and will remain on an upwards trajectory until there is effective government action. Although the 300,000 figure cited by the Chancellor and Secretary of State is correct, it’s worth remembering this drop happened in the coalition’s first year – in other words, before it implemented its policies. (Also, data lags mean we don’t know what happened to poverty after March 2012.)
One very welcome policy announcement made by the coalition early on (though it was later partly reversed) was on the over-indexation of child tax credits. Now, of course, poor families are living in a different world. The real value of child tax credit, child benefit and other key sources of support is being driven down relentlessly by a complex sequence of freezes and changes to the way these benefits are uprated. As a result, the Institute for Fiscal Studies ‘nowcasts’ that 300,000 more children live in poverty today than in 2010. And the effects of these policies are not one-off: the IFS estimate their cumulative impact is likely to impoverish a further 600,000 children by 2020.
With this record waiting in the wings, it is not surprising that Osborne and Duncan Smith want to change the measure against which they are held to account. Last year, they put forward a proposal for a new ‘multi-dimensional’ measure of child poverty which, lo and behold, would have been insensitive to cuts to family support. Thankfully, strong opposition from the Lib Dems seems to have successfully derailed this attempt to conflate poverty with a hotchpotch of other issues such as addiction, family breakdown and debt.
This morning, Alan Milburn, chair of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, asserted that this leaves us all in a ‘no-man’s land’, with a government that has declared its lack of faith in the current measures but failed to produce an alternative set. Milburn, however, misses a critical fact: that the current measures that Osborne and Duncan Smith disparage are no mere statistical norms, but are instead encoded in the Child Poverty Act passed with Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour support back in 2010.
The government is not operating in a zone of unaccountability, then, but remains obliged by law to explain how its policies will impact on child poverty as it is currently defined. The new child poverty strategy is full of promises – to make work pay, to close the education gap and to reduce living costs for poor families. But until the government can explain how all this will get results despite a programme of indisputably poverty-producing policies, its record when measured against the robustly defined Child Poverty Act is likely to be dismal indeed.