Child poverty figures – fix the problem, not the warning light

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On 25th June the Department for Work and Pensions will release updated figures on poverty, including child poverty, for 2013-14.

These figures were delayed until after the election, meaning the last government went into a General Election with child poverty figures available only up to the end of March 2013 –  that’s before most of the austerity-driven benefit cuts had been implemented.

The delay enabled government ministers to make repeated claims that child poverty had fallen during the last parliament, a claim that is unlikely to survive the publication of the 2013-14 figures. Independent experts including the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the New Policy Institute expect the number of children in poverty to have risen, probably by around 300,000. Even more worryingly, they see this rise as part of a longer term upward trend in the number of children growing up in hardship.

Even if these projections are inaccurate, there’s no disputing that the Government’s child poverty strategy is failing – it simply isn’t going to meet the legal targets to end child poverty by 2020.

So, how do we expect the Government to respond?

Well, after spending the election campaign boasting about how the figures showed child poverty falling, it seems likely that ministers will seek to ditch how those figures are worked out.

It’s worth pointing out that in opposition David Cameron said the focus on relative poverty was a ‘big change’ in his party’s thinking on child poverty.   He added:

“Even if we are not destitute, we still experience poverty if we cannot afford things that society regards as essential. The fact that we do not suffer the conditions of a hundred years ago is irrelevant.

In the nineteenth century Lord Macaulay pointed out that the poor of his day lived lives of far greater material prosperity than the greatest noblemen of the Tudor period. But as Dickens observed, the poor of those days were still poor. Fifty years from today, people will be considered poor if they don't have something which hasn't even been invented yet. So poverty is relative - and those who pretend otherwise are wrong.”

Despite in the past supporting the internationally-recognised relative poverty measure, the Prime Minister and Iain Duncan Smith have both indicated that they’d prefer to use other measures, such as how long a child has two birth parents looking after them.

We believe relative poverty matters because without a relative measure, there’s nothing to stop low-income families drifting further and further away from the mainstream. While income isn’t the only factor that matters for a child’s wellbeing, if his or her parents don’t have enough money to afford a minimum standard of living, that child is at risk of hardship and ongoing disadvantage.  

You can read more about the impact of income on child outcomes in this excellent Joseph Rowntree Foundation review of the evidence by Kerris Cooper and Kitty Stewart.

If child poverty numbers are flashing red, it’s time to fix the problem, not fix the warning light.