New Child Poverty Strategy Is Last Chance for Coalition to Show It's Serious About Ending Child Poverty
The coalition government has repeatedly embraced its legal commitment to end child poverty by 2020. As part of this, it needs to publish a second national Child Poverty Strategy (CPS) by early April. The delays in getting out a draft - initially expected before Christmas, but now expected later this week - have given rise to feverish political speculation. But it's worth at this point taking a step back to think about the context in which the strategy is being launched - and why it matters.
The latest hints coming from within government suggest that we might be seeing a raft of measures - many repackaged existing measures, but perhaps new policies too - to tackle child poverty. Welcome, however, as the speculated reduced costs of utilities and extensions of free school meals would be to families, they need to be cast in a broader light. Projections from the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest that we can expect not the eradication, or even a reduction, in child poverty by the end of a decade, but a vast increase, from 2.3 million today to 3.2 million in 2020.
The consequences of this failure will be enormous. Child poverty costs this country £29bn a year, which will rise to £35bn by 2020 if those projections prove accurate. And that's just the financial cost of condemning a whole generation of children to grow up in poverty, and have their life chances curtailed.
Most scandalous of all is that this is the result of political choices. The IFS make clear that what is driving increases in poverty over this Parliament is tax and benefit reforms, particularly cuts to support for families with children, and especially changes to how benefits are uprated. Various changes to uprating alone will account for almost half of total losses, the impact accelerating over time. At the macro level, the government is pursuing poverty-producing policies: money is being systematically taken out of poor households, year on year, and of child poverty being put on an upward slope as a result.
The CPS is expected to talk about getting parents into work, about education as a route out of poverty, and - as the leaked policies suggest - action on the cost of living. These are all important issues, and a coherent strategy would need to incorporate all of these areas. Yet with poverty high and rising dramatically; with two-thirds of children in poverty living in working families; and with more than 60% of benefit cuts falling on people in work, it is clear that small steps are not enough. Social security is being pared away, while the poverty-fighting potential of Universal Credit is being degraded by delays, complexities, and a series of cost-driven decisions to reduce support for the low paid.
The importance of support to families has long been felt by children, their parents, and understood by the groups who work with them. And perhaps society more broadly is starting to wake up to the damage being wrought as that support is withdrawn. Last week's evidence on food banks - both a damning expression of desperate hardship and the tip of the iceberg - provoked arguments, claims and counterclaims. Public support for benefit changes has fallen.
This week's Child Poverty Strategy will set the course for the next three years - taking us halfway to the target date. There is no silver bullet for ending child poverty, and the strategy needs to work on a number of fronts. We welcome measures to improve educational outcomes, tackle low pay reduce the cost of living, and to extend services for families. And local authorities are taking the lead in much of this. Yet, in the face of the waves of cuts to family support, such approaches amount to swimming against the tide. This strategy is a last chance for the government to take seriously its binding legal and moral commitment. Small steps are not enough. It can and must take the big choice to end child poverty, once and for all.
This blog was originally published in the Huffington Post.