The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has predicted that the Government will fail to meet its 2010 child poverty targets, claiming that an extra £4.2billion will need to be spent on tax credits for these to be met.
With little in the way of new redistributive policies since Brown became Prime Minister and before, this was always inevitable. Despite good progress being made in the immediate years after 1997, the Government has been far too complacent and cautious in anti-poverty measures.
However, one interesting aspect of this debate is the Conservative response. Theresa May has claimed that “Simply relying on means-tested benefits to address the symptoms of poverty is an unsustainable approach…Instead we must tackle the root causes of poverty, such as educational failure, family breakdown, drug abuse, indebtedness and crime.”
Three things strike me. Firstly, she offers no evidence for her assertion that transfer payments are not an efficacious way to tackle poverty. In actual fact, the Government has had a lot of success using that tool. Let’s not forget that in 1997, one in three British children were living in poverty. One in four is far too many but we were starting from a very high base.
Secondly, many of her ‘root causes’ will take many years to tackle. Reconfiguring the school system will lead to displacement and educational disruption in the short term; family breakdown and drug abuse are cultural phenomena that a Tory government would have difficulty in legislating to prevent (the former) and difficulty in devising new policies that have not failed in the past (the latter). Whilst crime is (partly) a welfare issue, I don’t believe there is any evidence linking it to child poverty; and indebtedness is directly linked to personal finances so can only be reduced by families receiving a greater income (May: “unsustainable”) or mandating how families spend their income (illiberal).
Furthermore, there is a nasty (another May quote I believe) undertone to what the Tories are saying. I will accept her point about educational failure but it is simply not true to say that “family breakdown, drug abuse, indebtedness and crime” are the root causes of poverty. 57% of poor children live in households headed by a couple and it is child poverty that often causes drug abuse and criminality in later life – not the other way round.
It seems that the Tories are more interested in either re-hashing a deserving/undeserving poor distinction (particularly abhorrent when we’re talking about children) or re-starting a war on single parents and the socially excluded by making them out as the authors of their own misfortune. Not only should the Government expose these reactionary sentiments, it should also get to work on an anti-poverty policy that combines massive increase in transfer payments (such as Child Tax Credit and Child Benefit) with action on the real ‘root causes’ of poverty: lack of decent affordable housing; insubstantial rights for agency and temporary workers; inadequate childcare provisions; and racism and disablism within the labour market.