It may seem perverse to start criticising the idea of ‘child poverty’. Looking back over Tony Blair’s years in office, there’s nothing more surprising or welcome than his call to ‘end child poverty, and it will take a generation’. New Labour invested substantially in policies that aimed to address it, and the Conservatives overcame their hostility to ideas of ‘relative poverty’ to pledge themselves to this child poverty target on the eve of the 2010 election.
Yet in a brilliantly-written and thought-provoking new report released yesterday, Kate Bell and Jason Strelitz argue that we need to go beyond the term ‘child poverty’ if we really want to make more fundamental changes to the lives of people in Britain. And in forming my own view on their report, I present some ideas that I’ll develop more fully when responding John Humphrys’ critique of the welfare state (starting next week).
What’s wrong with ‘child poverty’?
Bell & Strelitz begin by cataloguing the successes of the New Labour approach on child poverty. An enormous number of different policies somehow linked to the child poverty target, in particular a massive investment in family finances and a successful bid to raise the employment rates of lone parents (through tax credits and the introduction of the minimum wage that ‘made work pay’ and an improvement in subsidised childcare and support).
This meant that there were 900,000 fewer children in poverty (i.e. defined as kids living in households classed as ‘poor’) at the end of the New Labour government that at the start. For a US-UK audience, I thought the graph below was particularly interesting here, as part of the authors’ comparison of the Blair and Clinton approaches [p12]:
Yet Bell & Strelitz now argue we have reached the limit of what the ‘child poverty’ approach can achieve. Labour missed the target of halving the child poverty rate by 2010, and they cite IFS projections that child poverty is likely to rise by 2020, instead of this year seeing the complete end of child poverty.
This isn’t a technical problem, but instead a political one about the very term ‘child poverty’ itself. “Many who would be likely supporters [of the agenda] barely noticed what was going on. The discourse around the poverty agenda did not resonate widely.” They think this is for three reasons:
- “The ideas that motivate people to care about these issues are not only about a lack of income, but other aspects of fairness and justice” - and this isn’t captured by talk of ‘poverty’.
- The debate never got across the idea that poverty is dynamic, and that as many as 30% of the population (according to the JRF) are poor at some point. So instead we get the idea of ‘us’ and ‘them’, with ‘them’ being Charles Murray’s underclass.
- There was ‘insufficient respect for those in poverty’ – Labour politicians banged on about the undeservingness of benefit claimants, leaving those who were struggling to cope feeling like they were being blamed to the point of being demonised. Around twice as many people in the UK as in the Netherlands think that poverty is due to ‘laziness or lack of willpower’ according to one study [p17].
These public misunderstandings about poverty are excellently skewered by Bell & Strelitz, who compile a wealth of invaluable information about it (p18) – for example, citing Declan Gaffney’s analysis that less than 1% of households with kids have no adults that have ever worked, despite the repeated talk of ‘intergenerational worklessness’.
Ultimately they agree with Kitty Stewart (a former colleague of mine) who summed this all up by saying: “it is difficult not to look back on a decade of growth and huge parliamentary majorities as a rare opportunity only partly grasped to restructure society in the interests of the poorest children”.
In place of this agenda, they argue we need a new, more encompassing agenda that captures broader support and allows more radical change. They suggest the idea of ‘Decent Childhoods’ – a childhood “in which all children live in families with financial security, all children have meaningful opportunities; and all children are valued.” They then unpack each of these three strands.
Firstly, increasing financial security depends heavily on getting more people into better jobs. To get better jobs, we need incentives/penalties to encourage ‘high road’ business strategies that involve more training (see also my post on making bad jobs better). And to get more people into work, we need to both improve Britain’s poor childcare provision, and to introduce ‘guaranteed jobs’ for people on benefits, following the plan of Labour’s successful Future Jobs Fund.
Secondly, providing more meaningful opportunities means tackling educational inequalities via improved early years provision, allowing more ‘second chances’ to those who struggle in education the first time, and keeping the Government accountable for their educational reforms in terms of educational inequality.
Finally, they argue that to make all children feel valued, we need a shared sense of responsibility for those who are left behind in our globalised, hyper-competitive world.
The limits of ‘Decent Childhoods’
There’s much to admire about this report, and much to agree with – particularly around the limits of ‘child poverty’, where I think their argument is powerful and important. They admit they don’t “set out a detailed policy blueprint” and restrict themselves to “key tests” for policy, but they can hardly be faulted for this, given the scope of their argument. But I do disagree with them on one key issue: the way that broader public support can be mobilised behind an inequality-reducing plan of action.
Put simply, I don’t think that a turn from ‘Child Poverty’ to ‘Decent Childhoods’ is enough. Bell & Strelitz mention the previous ‘progressive universalism’ agenda that Gordon Brown pursued, and attribute its failure to administrative difficulties – but to me it seems that Decent Childhoods is likely to go exactly the same way as this and other attempts to rebrand progressive ideas (likewise for the Fabian’s idea of ‘Life Chances’). Critically, Tony Blair’s speech where he pledged to end child poverty began:
“Today I want to talk to you about a great challenge: how we make the welfare state popular again. How we restore public trust and confidence in a welfare state that 50 years ago was acclaimed but today has so many wanting to bury it.”
So there is this repeating desire to find the terms and the rhetoric that will inspire public support – a repeating desire that has so far been unsuccessful. To me, the underlying problem is that insufficient attention has been given to changing the common-sense understandings of politicians and the public about why people are poor. Bell & Strelitz do talk about this, but say “The idea of decent childhoods is an attempt find an alternative positive framing of this issue that does not force a distinction between deserving or not” (p40).
The desire here is admirable, but the practical result is that we gloss over the stereotypes of undeservingness, rather than setting out to redefine the nature of what ‘deserving’ means. I’ll finish this (too-long) post for this week, only to return to these issues over the next three weeks in more (and more bite-size) detail. In the meantime, Bell & Stelitz’s report is a must-read for cataloguing the achievements and failings of the current agenda, and to make a coherent attempt to move beyond it.