“This is the coalition’s real agenda: to show that what were once symptoms are now causes of poverty” ~ Randeep Ramesh
Thursday’s speech by Iain Duncan Smith on child poverty should be seen as part of the coalition’s wider agenda to rid itself of Labour’s pursuit of a more equal society. The former Tory leader aims to keep the poverty targets for 2020, but to see if there are “better measurements of child poverty – which include income but do more to reflect the reality … in the UK today”.
Duncan Smith’s arguments are simple: Labour’s figures are a statistical trick based on relative numbers, and even by spending billions the last government failed to meet its own goals.
So the relative child poverty target for last year was missed by 600,000 – with 2.3m children left in penury.
Even worse, says the welfare secretary, relative child poverty fell – but not because poor children became any better off in absolute terms.
As the Department for Work and Pensions stated in a press release: “It cannot be right that because median incomes fall children are considered to have moved out of poverty when there will have been no real change to their lives.”
This might be true but it is political sophistry. Relative poverty is widely accepted as a measure because the poor live among us all – and their living standards are measured in comparison to their fellow citizens.
What is also puzzling is that the Child Poverty Act, which all parties supported in passing before the last election, has four targets: relative low income, absolute low income, persistent low income and material deprivation.
Every three years the government has to publish a child poverty strategy focused on meeting the four poverty targets and preventing children experiencing “socio-economic” disadvantage.
The act was broad, putting the onus on ministers to show how in education, health and social services the policies are subservient to the goal of poverty reduction. Little wonder one of the coalition’s first acts was to weaken these sections of the law.
Then there are the targets. One is to cut relative low income child poverty to less than 10% by 2020-21. That’s an extra million children out of poverty. Then, to cut absolute low income child poverty to less than 5% by 2020-21. At least 900,000 taken out of penury.
It can be done. Denmark and Finland had relative child poverty figures of 10%. Both achieved their goal by spending cash on the poor.
But Duncan Smith wants to do away with simple redistribution, claiming that “overall, spending in the years when the last government’s child poverty reductions went flat, was remarkable”. He mentions the “£171bn on tax credits and an almost £30bn net increase in the welfare spend from 2003-04 to 2010 just to sustain their position”.
This he says has just “fuelled dependency”.
Actually it has not; it’s kept mainly working people afloat. The proportion of children in poverty in working households has risen significantly, from about 52% to 60% since 2000. This immiseration of the working people is the real story. Work does not pay for many on the breadline.
Unlike those on the left who wanted to change capitalism, Duncan Smith wants to change the poor.
The cabinet minister argues that the circumstances the poor find themselves in are of their own making; poverty was a result of their own actions rather than due to lack of opportunities.
What Duncan Smith argues is that simply increasing household income though reducing income poverty won’t make a big difference to children’s “life chances”.
The source of child poverty, he says, is “worklessness and welfare dependency, addiction, educational failure, debt or family breakdown”.
This is the coalition’s real agenda: to show that what were once symptoms are now causes of poverty.
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