Children: the deserving poor?

‘If there’s anything extra to buy such as a pair of boots for one of the children … me and the children goes without dinner.’ So says a working class woman from York interviewed for Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree’s painstaking study of poverty in late nineteenth century Britain. When conducting his research between 1898 and 1901, Rowntree was alarmed at what he found:

This suffering may be all but voiceless, and we may long remain ignorant of its extent and severity, but when once we realise it we see that social questions of profound importance await solution.

Yet, over a century later, 1.6 million British children live in severe poverty, defined as £134 a week for a lone parent with one child and £240 a week for a couple with two children, according to the charity Save the Children.

Like the Yorkshire housewife before her, Jacqueline Robinson, a mother of two from Wales, goes without food to get by. ‘There is always one week in every month when things are bad and I wonder how I will manage. I will go without when things are tight, sometimes going without food for a day to keep my children fed and properly dressed.’

It is not just parents who worry about being poor; children are acutely aware of their poverty. In recent BBC documentary ‘Poor Kids’ four children describe in their own words what it is like to be poor. ‘We’re like a kind of poor family, we’re different cause we can’t do that much in our house,’ says eight-year-old Courtney.

‘When people haven’t got nowt to do and they’re bored outside they can go in and do puzzles and colour … and we can’t do that. When we’re bored outside, we’ve got to go inside and watch TV.’

Twelve-year-old Sam gets bullied because of his second-hand clothes and is always hungry. He lives with his dad and older sister. His mum left the family when he was two. ‘I think I’m poor because we only get £420 a month. That goes on what we need and not what we want. We have to spend it on food and electric and gas.’

The last government made ending child poverty a key policy; yet in recent years the number of children living in relative income poverty, defined as a household with an equivalised income that is less than 60% of the median income, has reached an astounding 2.8 million (22%). Labour managed to cut rates from 26% to 21% by 2004/05, but despite spending £134bn over 10 years on child benefits and working tax credits, from then onwards child poverty worsened.

Can a new government turn this depressing trend around? Poverty campaigners have already attacked the Coalition’s three-year strategy, published in April, as ‘empty’ and below standard. The strategy forms part of a long-term plan to cut the rate of child poverty to less than 10% by 2020, a legal requirement under the Child Poverty Act 2010. Much of it is based on the recommendations made by Labour MP Frank Field who wants child poverty policy to focus on the first years of a child’s life. This is no bad thing. Mr Field argues that the government should prioritise things like improving parental education, quality nursery education and early childhood cognitive attainment.

This work has already begun in many Sure Start centres around the country, but is under threat because of the government’s refusal to ring fence funding for the centres. Councils under pressure to make savings are under no obligation to spend a set amount on Sure Start – as they were under the previous government. In Tower Hamlets, for example, where one in four children lives in severe poverty, the council has promised not to close any of its Sure Start centres, but budgets will be reduced. At one centre in a working class area of Bow, a member of staff said he and colleagues were seriously concerned about job losses.

The government insists that the Early Intervention Grant, funding diverted from several existing programmes including Sure Start, will provide ‘intervention and preventative services’ for young children. There is also £625m pupil premium fund for schools that provide extra help for poor children and annual increases in the child element of tax credits until 2013. However, the child poverty strategy contains few other concrete policies; instead, there are a lot of references to aspiration, worklessness and responsibility. In one section it says: ‘…we create a system which rewards people who do the right thing and work themselves out of poverty.’

This chimes with simplistic rhetoric used elsewhere – from both the government and the opposition – about encouraging a better work ethic among people dependent on welfare. It is a rhetoric that fails to take into account the miserable reality of living on benefits and the fact that 55% of children living in relative poverty – that’s 1.5 million children – come from households where at least one adult works.

The strategy also indicates that the government won’t rely on working tax credits and benefits to reduce poverty. Instead, it government expects the success of its reforms to public services to create the right circumstances for families to lift themselves out of poverty. The Big Society, reforms to housing allowance and welfare, changes to employment support allowance, enlisting the private sector to deliver public services and localism are all cited as policies that will help improve the life chances of the most disadvantaged children and eventually end child poverty. There is little detail on how long this will take and how it will be measured. The report also ignores criticism from groups who argue that these same policies will deepen poverty. The Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts that the coalition’s austerity measures will mean nearly 300,000 children more will be pushed into poverty over the next three years.

The decision to review the statutory duty on local authorities to address child poverty also seems at odds with the end goal of the Act. The report says government wants ‘to make sure… they strike the right balance between giving local authorities the freedom … to get things done, whilst protecting the most vulnerable’.

Another flaw in the strategy is the failure to properly address issues around existing poverty measurements. Many poverty campaigners argue that the current measures aren’t properly reflective and need reforming. The government’s strategy mentions the importance of measuring severe poverty and including life chance indicators, but fails to develop the idea.

Kristian Niemietz, from the Institute of Economic Affairs, argues that policies shaped around the existing measurement, households with an equivalised income less than 60% of the median income, do not work. In a recession, for example, if average incomes fall, then poverty falls, even though living standards among the poor might have gotten worse.

Instead we should update Rowntree’s method and create a consensual poverty line based on necessities needed to subsist, pegged to the cost of purchasing these items. Niemietz argues that this would enable the government to use supply-side policies to stimulate competition in industries such as utilities creating cheaper, more affordable goods and services, in turn reducing material deprivation.

Of course it will take more than markets to reduce the number of poor children in Britain; better education, flexible employment opportunities and more skills-based jobs training are just some ways the state can stop poor children becoming poor adults.

The government would do well to take seriously its commitment to child poverty; children should not be condemned to penury in today’s Britain. Rowntree was right to conclude that, ‘however difficult the path of social progress may be, a way of advance will open out before patient and penetrating thought if inspired by a true human sympathy.’

This article first appeared on hackeryblog

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