‘A strong society means moving forward together, no one left behind, fighting relative poverty a central policy goal.’ Well, Child Poverty Action Group would say that, wouldn’t they? In fact, these are the words of David Cameron, less than a decade ago, a day on which he also proclaimed: ‘I want this message to go out loud and clear: the Conservative party recognises, will measure and will act on relative poverty’.
Assuming Cameron’s beliefs and values have not flipped 180 degrees in the meantime, today will be a sad day for him. The figures released today show that the UK’s high child poverty numbers did not budge in 2013-14. The Institute for Fiscal Studies is projecting three million children in poverty by 2020 (700,000 more than today), 4.3 million after housing costs. This, note, is at a time of rising prosperity, and does not look very much like moving forward together. Whatever the first Cameron government did to reduce child poverty, it has not worked.
We do, however, have a good idea of what does work. When Tony Blair – whose mantra of marrying economic efficiency and social justice was namechecked in that 2006 Cameron speech – made a commitment to end child poverty in a generation, it drove action across Whitehall. Through a combination of increased childcare provision, financial support for families with children, and a multidimensional approach to getting parents into paid work, the United Kingdom achieved the biggest falls in poverty in the OECD, with more than a million children lifted out of poverty. One quarter of the reduction was down to the increased employment rate of lone parents. And nor was this ‘poverty plus a pound’: the IFS found that significant poverty reductions would have taken place on a line drawn anywhere from 43 per cent to 100 per cent of median income. This was the platform from which to build in 2010.
The coalition government, however, failed to take action on low pay, on protecting family incomes or on the housing crisis. Instead, it made those on low incomes bear the brunt, through cuts to support for families with children and reductions in housing support, with the UK second in the low pay league behind the United States. There have been a few rays of hope, like increased childcare support and universal infant free school meals, but they have been nowhere near enough. Instead, plans for further cuts to social security will only add to the child poverty crisis. This has nothing to do with deficit reduction, either: tax and benefit changes under the coalition were simply a redistribution from the poorest half to the richest half of the population.
I will leave the last word to Cameron: ‘I believe that poverty is an economic waste and a moral disgrace’. He was right then, and he is right now. We – he – can do so much better.
Alison Garnham is chief executive of Child Poverty Action Group. She tweets @alisoncpag
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