Is rising child poverty a price worth paying to protect our children?
Today’s awful figures tells us several things. Child poverty is high. It’s rising – it’s jumped to 4 million. Two thirds of poor children come from working families. But perhaps the main lesson to take away is that we need to call time on the unfathomable Whitehall orthodoxy, driven by George Osborne but still in place under Theresa May, that rising child poverty is a price worth paying to protect our children.
In 2008, as shadow Chancellor, Osborne said one test of a fair society is “we do not leave our children to pay our debts, and this is not just reckless it is deeply unfair on future generations.” Although few would disagree with that test, many did disagree with his answer of austerity, with billions cut from support for families with children, in- and out-of-work.
It was predictable and predicted that the damage done to family incomes by a litany of spending cuts would have a child poverty impact.
Before austerity, the UK lifted 1.1 million children out of poverty. Since austerity was mainlined into Whitehall, child poverty has risen by 400,000.
Much of the pain was delivered silently, by freezing or failing to increase benefits in line with inflation. The value of child benefit, for example, will have been cut by over a quarter by the end of the decade. At the same time, sizeable tax cuts were presented as pro-poor but under which the gains nearly all went to the better off.
Much has been inflicted in blue-on-blue contact, which will affect poverty figures in future years. George Osborne’s gutting of IDS’s Universal Credit in the 2015 Summer Budget turned the government’s main poverty-fighting social policy into what is probably a poverty-making one. I say probably because the Government now refuses to say whether Universal Credit will lift any children out of poverty.
In all, since 2010, government(s) have been committed to walking down a road which will widen and deepen child poverty. All in the name of protecting children.
Yet, as much as we can be certain of anything, we know that low incomes adversely affect the life chances of children, from education to health, and from family to home. (Our new book on life chances includes contributions from a number of leading experts making this case).
We also know that the extra pressure on public services and the waste of economic potential of child poverty have financial consequences which affect society more broadly. Our research estimates child poverty cost the UK £29 billion in 2013 - surely now an underestimate.
None of this sounds as if it’s being fair to future generations.
All this is set to get worse. The Institute for Fiscal studies projects that child poverty will rise and rise again, hitting 5.1 million by 2021/22.
Theresa May’s words on the steps of Downing Street on fighting the ‘burning injustice’ of poverty and the barely-noticed theme of ‘putting the next generation first’ theme of last week’s Budget, were encouraging, each in its own way.
Yet, fundamentally, the Osborne settlement for families remains, and neither the Prime Minister nor her Chancellor is talking about the looming child poverty crisis. The Budget failed to mention child poverty once. Unthinkable a few years ago. The forthcoming social justice green paper is feared to take a narrow approach and focus only on the minority of low income families who face multiple difficulties - yet ignoring poverty – the main driver of their struggles and (or so we thought) the chief purpose of the green paper’s sponsoring department.
The simple reason for this is that the government remains wedded to the fiscal approach pursued since 2010. Even if it’s quite clear that it’s deeply unfair and failing our children. If ever a U-turn was needed, it is now.