This week, one of the country’s biggest and best-organised lobby groups published what it called a Child Poverty Map of the UK. The research, by the Campaign to End Child Poverty, an umbrella group for more than 150 charities, religious groups and trade unions, brought predictable themes back into the headlines. There was the scandal of so many children growing up poor in this prosperous country of ours, the iniquitous economic disparities that blight today’s Britain, and the dire effects that the Government’s changes in the benefits system are already having.
All of this is familiar, and some of it may be true. But a rather important aspect of the findings was buried. Child poverty, the campaign had to admit, is declining. Not by a lot, but the direction is down. There are now 300,000 fewer children “in poverty” – defined as living in a household receiving less than 60 per cent of the average wage – than there were a year ago.
For campaigners, of course, this makes for dangerous territory. Any temptation to claim even a modest success is far outweighed by the fear of losing persuasive power. Thus, any improvement must be accompanied by warnings that it is only a blip and that everything is bound to get worse – or, as was argued with a little more sophistication last year – that the fall is a perverse by-product of the bigger fall in household incomes.
The trouble here is that campaigners cannot have it both ways. If it suits their purpose to define poverty as a percentage of average household income, they cannot reasonably change this when average incomes fall. The well-being of children cannot be separated from bigger trends.
Out of proportion
In a way, though, this is precisely what the last government tried to do, and what the current Government has only tentatively challenged. The thinking is that children do not deserve to be punished for the sins or misfortunes of their parents. And its chief political proponent was Gordon Brown, both as Chancellor and Prime Minister. It was his promise to “end child poverty by 2020” that produced the 2010 Child Poverty Act and enshrined an essentially ideological objective in law.
Brown may perhaps be indulged a little. Doubtless, the conditions in which poor children lived in the part of Scotland he knew when he was growing up as a church minister’s son were such that he resolved to improve things. Nor would even the most fervent free-marketeer deny that a disadvantaged beginning is often compounded as the years pass. The UK figures for health and education correlated against income groups are worse than those for many other European countries, and the gaps grow wider with age.
But the consensus still seems to be that a child’s condition can be kept distinct from that of his or her family, and that money – taxpayers’ money – will provide the insulation. To suggest anything different is to invite an outcry from lobbyists about the need to protect “innocent children”. Witness the furore about the removal of child benefit from households with at least one high earner; or the cap set on housing benefit – which actually affects only those living in areas with very high property prices; or the coming cap on total benefits per household; or the likelihood that more people will be liable for council tax.
In each and every case, the cry goes up to “think of the children”, as though children should be the be-all and end-all of government policy. But one reason why children may seem to be disproportionately affected by these measures, even if they are not, is that under the last government they were disproportionately favoured in the tax and benefits system. The suggestion that families hitherto exempt should pay some council tax is a case in point. Why should those with children not pay at least a contribution, when they are likely to be making many more demands on public services than others?
Nor is the vast constituency of anti-poverty lobbyists averse to using supposed special injustices suffered by poor children to further their cause. Take the so-called “bedroom tax” – which will require social housing tenants to pay extra rent if they have more rooms than they are strictly deemed to need. The Campaign to End Child Poverty says it is calling on local authorities to “protect families hit by the bedroom tax” – even though the express purpose of the charge is to free larger accommodation for families. Should these campaigners not, in all honesty, be on the other side?
Consider, too, the case of child asylum-seekers, invariably presented as the innocent of the innocent. The Coalition has undertaken not to confine asylum-seekers with children to detention centres and not to detain unaccompanied minors at all. But should it be harder to deport illegal migrants just because they have children? And can the position of the children be separated so easily from the actions of their parents? As for unaccompanied children, many are near-adults whose actual age is an issue at stake. Some lobbyists admit that they deliberately put children front and centre of their campaigns, because the public is more sympathetic to them than to adult asylum-seekers. Their bluff should be called.
To separate the situation of children, whether materially or legally, from that of their parents is disingenuous, and channelling money towards supposedly poor children solves nothing. Low pay, expensive housing, costly childcare and legal citizenship requirements affect everyone. What is now called child benefit was once called family allowance. We could usefully return to that idea, and abandon the whole seductive concept of child poverty. There are only two ways of ending child poverty, as the 2010 Act promised. One – to remove children from their impoverished circumstances – is socially unacceptable. The other is to address the perverse incentives in our tax and benefits system that favour children at the expense of the family. Repealing the Child Poverty Act would be a start.