In 2010, the prime minister and the deputy prime minister acknowledged ‘difficult decisions will have to be taken in the months and years ahead’, but promised the coalition would ‘ensure that fairness is at the heart of those decisions so that all those most in need are protected’.
Five years later the Institute for Fiscal Studies has produced an assessment of the coalition’s performance against this pledge. Critically, it shows that children – self-evidently some of the most vulnerable members of society – have been hardest hit by the austerity agenda. To add insult to injury, the analysis also shows that the poorest households across the country have shouldered the burden of cuts.
Some figures are worth citing. The institute has shown for example that tax and benefit changes over the course of this parliament have reduced the income of the poorest parents by six per cent, a bigger drop than that experienced by any other income group. Family fortunes are in stark contrast to other parts of the demographic – for example, pensioners have barely seen any change to their real incomes over the course of the last five years and middle income households without children have actually seen their incomes rise.
With austerity bearing down on poor families in this way, it is no surprise that child poverty is on the up. While the government continues to claim child poverty has gone down on its watch, the IFS analysis makes clear that its policies are very much at odds with this assertion. Other work by the IFS suggests there are 400,000 more children living in poverty in the United Kingdom today than there were in 2010, with this figure set to rise by a further 300,000 by 2020 as the tax and benefit policies announced so far continue to unroll.
And it looks like worse is to come. Despite cross-party support for the Child Poverty Act which requires government to reduce child poverty to negligible levels by 2020, both George Osborne and Ed Balls have indicated that help for families to manage the costs of children will be cut in real terms in the next parliament. As children’s benefits decline in value, child poverty rates can only go up. That means more children suffering miserable childhoods; poorer health and education outcomes for a generation; and higher costs to the country (the cost of child poverty to the UK is estimated to be £29bn a year) as we pay for programmes to ameliorate the effects of poverty and forgo future revenues.
Policies that increase child poverty make no sense against any measure. Child poverty is damaging childhoods and reducing children’s life chances. On top of all that it is also producing a toxic fiscal legacy for future governments.
Alison Garnham is chief executive of Child Poverty Action Group
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