Celebrating our record
This week’s Households Below Average Income figures, which are due to be published on Thursday, are important because they will show the degree of success achieved in meeting the target to halve child poverty by 2010, on the way to Tony Blair’s ambitious aim of ending child poverty within a generation.
We don’t expect the figures to show the target’s been met: it’s always been recognised to be a tough call, and we’ve been off track in recent years. But neither should we be pessimistic or apologetic about Labour’s record on child poverty. A report being published today by Child Poverty Action Group suggests that this week’s figures will show 900,000 children lifted out of poverty between 1998 and 2010, a tremendous achievement by any measure. And even this headline figure underestimates the achievement: as analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, quoted in the CPAG report, shows, without the action taken by the Labour government in the 2000s to reduce child poverty, it’s projected that an additional 900,000 children would have fallen into poverty over the decade.
The coalition government’s been thoroughly unwilling to acknowledge this success, arguing that massive expenditure on benefits and tax credits achieved little in terms of poverty reduction. Clearly the figures give the lie to this assertion, yet increasingly it’s gaining currency. And it’s not only ministers, but also voices from the left, who have been asserting the failure of redistributive measures to address income poverty, arguing instead for investment to be redirected to early years provision and education.
Of course, such investment’s crucially important too. But the CPAG report conclusively refutes two central arguments that are being made by critics. In a series of chapters looking at all aspects of poverty, from educational outcomes to health and wellbeing, from social mobility to parental employment, the point is repeated that, first, adequate incomes matter for the effectiveness of all other mechanisms for tackling poverty, and second, suggestions that Labour failed on all measures of poverty other than income simply aren’t borne out by the facts.
In truth, Labour’s antipoverty strategy never was simply limited to tackling income poverty. Policies across the piece – sure start, measures to tackle the attainment gap in schools and improve educational outcomes, the minimum wage, the new deals and labour market programmes, the national childcare strategy, initiatives to reduce smoking, increase breastfeeding and tackle teenage pregnancy, measures to cut crime, improve neighbourhoods and address homelessness, and a host more – all contributed to a demonstrable improvement in children’s wellbeing.
In his chapter for the CPAG report, Professor Jonathan Bradshaw of the University of York shows that, across a range of 48 indicators examined across the domains of material wellbeing, child health, subjective wellbeing and mental health, education, housing, child maltreatment, children in care, childcare, crime and drugs, over the period 1997 to 2010, 36 moved in the right direction, and on only four did performance worsen. To suggest Labour’s strategy was too narrowly focused on incomes, and that our policy failed, massively ignores this evidence.
But the significance of the analysis carried out for CPAG’s report goes beyond defending Labour’s record (something, by the way, that we ourselves have seemed strangely reluctant to do). The important – and worrying – message from the report is that progress made on all these different fronts is now in jeopardy as a result of the present government’s austerity programme.
Ideology rather than evidence is driving ministerial priorities, with more reliance on soundbites than on sound analysis of the causes and drivers of poverty and the long-term strategies to tackle them.
And, as Professor Tess Ridge of the University of Bath points out in her chapter, far from being ‘all in it together’, it’s apparent that the poorest children and families are bearing the brunt of the recession and austerity measures. Meanwhile, Jonathan Portes of the National Institute of Social and Economic Research, sounds an alarm bell for coalition ministers when he argues that policies designed to increase social mobility are being undermined by the specific policies of the government.
The truth is that Labour’s overall strategy over the past decade was the right one, and while more could have been achieved if we’d maintained the policy boldness of the early 2000s throughout the decade, the overall results for poor children were impressive. Now, rather than allowing our good record to be rubbished (whether by foe or friend), we should be shouting our achievement from the rooftops, and putting this government on the spot to match it.
Kate Green MP is shadow equalities minister, former head of CPAG, and tweets @KateGreenMP
child poverty, Child Poverty Action Group, Institute for Fiscal Studies, Kate Green, Labour, poverty, Tony Blair