SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Socialism Today 127 - April 2009

Abolishing child poverty

Ten years after Blair’s pledge

MARK TOMLINSON, co-author of a new Child Poverty Action Group book, looks at how far the New Labour government is from realising the rhetoric of its early pledge to end child poverty ‘within a generation’.

Coping with Complexity: Child and Adult Poverty,

Mark Tomlinson & Robert Walker,

Child Poverty Action Group, 2009, £11

ON 18 MARCH 1999 the then prime minister Tony Blair stated during the annual Beveridge lecture that New Labour was now committed to the eradication of child poverty within a generation. This led to several targets being set. Child poverty was to be eliminated by the year 2020, being halved by 2010 along the way. But now ministers have stopped talking about the 2010 target and, increasingly, the 2020 objective is being seen as nothing more than a pipe-dream.

Before Blair’s Beveridge speech poverty had largely been off the political agenda. Margaret Thatcher had effectively eliminated the word from common political parlance in the 1980s – poverty simply did not exist we were told. It was something that was associated with the abject poverty of Africa, not the affluence of the developed world. Despite the fact that the level of relative income poverty in the UK increased from around 14% in 1979 to 25% in 1992, discussions around the issue were conveniently replaced by references to concepts such as ‘social exclusion’ and ‘the underclass’. Often, debates on the underclass, as the poor were often labelled, implied a kind of moral malaise of the victim’s own making which was generally related to a culture of worklessness and deprivation prevalent among certain sections of society. Ultimately, what these debates revealed was the establishment’s contempt for the poor and the working classes.

The legacy of the Thatcher era, with poverty climbing at an extremely rapid rate during the 1980s, is that Britain is now notorious for having one of the highest child poverty rates in Europe. It also has one of the worst records on child well-being in the developed world. UNICEF published a damning report in 2007 that for the first time attempted to rank developed countries on several dimensions relating to child poverty and well-being. There were 21 countries in the study including many east European nations. The UK ranked bottom overall, just behind the United States. The six dimensions measured included material well-being, health and safety, educational well-being, family and peer relationships, behaviour and risks, and subjective well-being. The UK came last on the relationships and behaviour dimensions, next-to-last on subjective well-being, 17th on education and 18th on material well-being.

The only dimension where the UK lifted itself out of the bottom group was health and safety where it came 12th. This is possibly a reflection of the over-protective nature of childcare in Britain today where risk-averse parents are constantly reminded of the dangers of paedophilia, and schools and other institutions are obsessed with health and safety issues. In the EU, child poverty rates are unacceptably high at around 19% on average, but the UK still stands out with a rate of 25%. Only Hungary, Latvia and Poland have worse child poverty rates. Scandinavian countries generally have the lowest levels at around 10% or less.

Off target

IT WAS WITHIN this kind of context that Blair’s speech grabbed the headlines and placed poverty back on the political agenda in a way not previously seen. Conveniently using children rather than adults as the focus of attention meant that the previous moral and ideological discourse – itself a rejoinder to the Victorian notions of the deserving and undeserving poor – could be neatly sidestepped. After all, a child cannot help being poor, whereas adults can perhaps be held responsible to some extent. Gordon Brown has also continued to espouse similar sentiments to Blair when he says that children are ‘100% of the future’; and even the Conservatives have now committed themselves to reducing poverty after years of ignoring it completely. However, the Tories have a slightly different approach to New Labour, with the thrust of their ideas being concentrated around notions of family breakdown and what they refer to as ‘broken Britain’. Echoes of the old ‘back to basics’ agenda propagated by John Major are never far away, but it is still a far cry from the type of debate we remember from Thatcher’s days.

According to calculations from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), child poverty will fall from 2.9 million to 2.3 million by 2010, but this is still 600,000 short of the government’s target. It has been estimated that the government would have to increase its investment in the benefits and tax credit system by some £4.2 billion per year over and above what has been allocated in order to meet this interim goal. At the time of writing there is little information available about April’s budget, and the next government spending review (due in the summer), where the next three-year spending plans are announced, is likely to be postponed. According to IFS figures, if the current spending plans remain in place, child poverty will actually rise to over three million by the year 2020.

Given the new context of a deep and prolonged recession it seems obvious to many that the new budgetary constraints will almost certainly hamper any progress towards achieving the poverty targets. Indeed the 2010 target has not been on track for some time despite initial progress through the redistributive family tax credit system introduced by Brown when he was the chancellor. Between 2004 and 2007 there was an unexpected rise in child poverty despite the government injecting an extra £2 billion since 2006. It is this unexpected increase that has led to the 2010 benchmark being off-course (see chart).

Record public sector debt

THERE IS ALSO now a huge gulf emerging between what New Labour has promised to deliver and the continuing political rhetoric around child poverty espoused by the likes of the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, Ed Balls. On the Department for Children, Schools and Families website it states that Balls’ objectives are "to ensure that every child gets the best possible start in life, that they are safe and healthy, that they secure the highest standards of achievements, that they enjoy their childhood, and that they can make a positive contribution to society free from the effects of poverty". This type of discourse has been gathering momentum in the years since Blair’s 1999 Beveridge speech. This has culminated in several major policy initiatives and announcements, not least the creation of a Children’s Commissioner for England in 2005 and the creation of a new government department oriented around children and families in 2007 to replace the Department for Education and Skills.

This has gone hand in hand with the publication of several keynote policy documents and legislative changes (for example, the Children’s Act 2004, the Every Child Matters blueprint, and the publication of the Children’s Plan, 2007). The Children’s Plan states that by 2020 several objectives will be achieved – not just the eradication of child poverty. These objectives include securing the well-being of children, safeguarding the young and vulnerable, increasing educational attainment, and closing the performance gap between poorer and wealthier children. None of these are realistic in the light of the economic downturn which has seen the increase in public borrowing nearly double in 2008, and which is looking set to reach a record of £87 billion in 2008-09. According to the IFS, this would be the highest level of public sector net borrowing for 14 years. Using the Bank of England’s own methods, the Financial Times forecasts that public sector borrowing will come close to £150 billion in 2009-10, falling back only to £140 billion in 2010-11 once value added tax has been raised again back to 17.5% from its current 15% level. In other words, borrowing will hit record post war levels close to 10% of national income and this will continue at least for the next two years (on their projections).

Scarred for life

THE PROBLEM THE government faces is that if it cannot reduce child poverty then its plans for child well-being, education and health and so on, will be in tatters. A large body of recent academic and policy research has documented and statistically analysed several issues relating childhood poverty to future outcomes in adults (usually referred to as ‘scarring’ or the ‘transmission of disadvantage’ across generations), as well as research showing the devastating impact of poverty on children in the here and now.

To get some idea of the scale of the problems faced by poor families in Britain now and in the future, consider the research on the transmission of disadvantage. The impact of poverty on a child’s future life chances has now been extensively researched using so-called cohort studies and other longitudinal studies. Cohort studies trace people born at a particular time (usually a particular week of a particular year) and then monitor several aspects of their lives every few years. This allows social policy researchers to build up a picture of what happens to people during childhood and then see how this then has an impact on their adult lives.

The research shows that the negative impacts of poverty appear to have increased as child poverty has increased during the 1980s and 1990s. Many studies of the effects of child poverty have shown that there is a higher probability than average of a poor child becoming workless in adulthood, having a poor career, having a reduced sense of civic participation and citizenship, a higher risk of becoming involved in crime and drug abuse, and a higher risk of becoming homeless. Other research has also documented various consequences of child poverty in later life, adding low self-esteem, low expectations, reduced income, reduced educational attainment, benefit dependency and poor labour market outcomes to the list. Other social changes have also exacerbated the problems. There has been increased polarisation of working versus non-working households and the effects that this has had on poverty and inequality rates. The growth of dual earner versus no earner households has also helped to widen the gulf between poverty and affluence.

Not only are poor children at a disadvantage when they grow up but, perhaps more importantly, they suffer from various penalties in the present. Research has also been done to show that exclusion from play facilities and after-school clubs is related to workless households, single parents, households with lower incomes, living in social housing and benefit recipients. Suspension and exclusion from school has also been shown to be significantly related to poverty. Health also undoubtedly suffers in poor children. For example, one study in 2005 showed that low income was a significant determinant of poorer health outcomes in 13 out of the 22 indicators that were examined. Other research has shown that the costs to GPs in London are significantly higher per head for poor people including poor children.

To mark the tenth anniversary of Blair’s speech, the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) has launched a renewed campaign to put child poverty back on the agenda and to remind the government of its promises. Ed Balls gave a speech at the event in Westminster. Many other pressure groups are following this type of agenda – made all the more urgent by the current economic crisis. To coincide with this, CPAG is launching two new books and a new manifesto for the post-2010 era. The first of these books documents new analysis done by researchers at Oxford University on the impact of poverty on current child well-being in Britain. The book uses data collected from children themselves to measure various dimensions of well-being and also combines this with data collected from the households where the children lived to measure various dimensions of poverty.

The results paint a stark picture of life for poor children in Britain today. Even after all the reforms and endless posturing of the Labour administration, child poverty remains a serious blight on the landscape of modern Britain. Poverty was shown to have significant negative consequences for every dimension of well-being covered in the study (these comprised home life, self-esteem, education and risk/behaviour). Children from poor families were more likely to have a poor home life, were more anxious, had a lower educational orientation and were more likely to engage in risky behaviour than their wealthier peers. Little wonder then that their chances later in life will no doubt be compromised.

Rhetoric & reality

TWO DIMENSIONS OF poverty in particular were shown to have the most impact on the child. Firstly, the intense financial pressure on their parents in trying to make ends meet. Secondly, the impact of living in a poor environment. In other words, the effects of poverty on children are intensified by poor housing and living in deprived neighbourhoods lacking facilities and suffering from higher levels of crime and environmental degradation. Another more worrying finding was the impact of a member of the household losing their job on the family situation. A parent becoming unemployed had a very high impact on the child’s well-being which will only get worse now that unemployment is rising rapidly once more.

This leads to another problem with the government’s current policies to tackle poverty which also reveals the extent of the contradictory nature of the current political spin around child poverty in particular. The main driver of policy with respect to poverty has always been getting people ‘back’ into work. This has been particularly targeted at lone parents, for example, who are at a much higher risk than average of being poor. The government has repeatedly stressed that they see employment as the main route out of poverty.

The government set up many initiatives to get people into work. For example, the New Deal for Lone Parents, increased pressure and a wider range of job search services from job centres, the development of the tax credit system which gives income boosts to the low paid, and the introduction of a minimum wage and so on. But recent projections by Oxford Economics, reported in the Financial Times, reveal the growing extent of the capitalist crisis on jobs. Unemployment is already now over two million and another one million jobs are expected to be lost in the next two years. Not only that, but recent research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has revealed that, in fact, the majority of poor children actually live in households where someone is in work, contrary to the rhetoric of government, which often implies that parents just need to get a job to lift their children out of deprivation. Even with the tax credits and benefits that Labour has introduced there is still a large number of families with employed adults living below the poverty line. Low-paid and casual jobs do not always help that much in lifting deprived families out of their predicament. This was also reinforced by the Oxford University research which showed that low-skilled and part-time jobs would do little to lift lone-parent families out of poverty. However, for many lone parents part-time work is the only option due to restrictions in the availability of childcare.

Despite all this Balls, in his speech at the CPAG event, stated that the government was still committed to ending child poverty. Despite not mentioning the 2010 target, he emphasised the fact that the government is about to enshrine the 2020 promise in legislation (the Child Poverty Bill) which was announced in the Queen’s speech earlier this year. How the government will do this given the economic climate and the failure of its previous policies he did not say.


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