The problem with the Government’s consultation on the definition of child poverty lies in the very first sentence: ‘The Coalition Government is committed to ending child poverty.’ Indeed this sentence is repeated so often it is a case that they ‘doth protest too much, methinks’.
In principle what the Government wants to do has some logic to it. Child poverty should be defined more widely than just by measures of relative income. Indeed, with a flash of honesty, it admits that the recent fall in child poverty rates is not due to any improvement in the incomes of the poorest but to a fall in the median income to which they are compared. So introducing a multidimensional definition, to include for example housing conditions, educational opportunity, parental health, and household debt, should provide a clearer picture of the reality of child poverty today.
The chapter on housing is a decent summary of the argument that bad housing has a huge impact on children’s health and wellbeing and their future opportunities. The quoted number of children living in overcrowded, badly repaired, damp and poorly-heated homes is testimony to the scale of the problem. But it also makes a simplistic association between ‘troubled areas’ and ‘living on estates’, which are of course different things. I also have suspicions about including family stability and parental worklessness in the measure and whether this is an attempt to open the door to Ian Duncan Smith’s favourite hobby horses.
Despite their assertion, the evidence that the Government has no real commitment to ending child poverty is just too strong. Their measures on tax credits, welfare benefits, housing rents, homelessness and the cuts to children and youth services make things so much worse for so many families with children.
The latest evidence comes from Sarah Teather MP, an apologist for the Coalition whilst in Government as Minister for Children and Families and now – since being sacked – desperately trying to rebuild her reputation and save her seat. Her interview in Saturday’s Guardian reveals a lot about the Coalition.
According to author Toby Helm, Teather ‘makes no bones about the fact that, for her, the cuts and caps already agreed by the coalition are unacceptable and wrong.’ Referring in particular to the overall benefit cap, she says that ‘having a system which is so punitive in its regime that it effectively takes people entirely outside society, so they have no chance of participating, crosses a moral line for me.’
Helm continues: ‘She accuses parts of government and the press of a deliberate campaign to ‘demonise’ those on benefits and of failing to understand that those in need of state help are just as human as they are. With vivid outrage she describes the language and caricatures that have been peddled. ‘I think deliberately to stoke up envy and division between people in order to gain popularity at the expense of children’s lives is immoral. It has no good intent.’ ’
‘The core of Teather’s argument is that the entire policy will not only be cruel and socially disruptive but also self-defeating because families and – most tragically – many thousands of children will be driven out of their homes and schools and forced to live in areas where rents are lower but where there will be less chance of adults finding jobs.’
At last someone with inside knowledge of the Coalition is telling the real story.
And the reality is that child poverty will get worse whatever measures are used.