Natalie Evans: We need to tackle the causes of child poverty, not just the symptons

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The Independent Online

In 1999, Tony Blair made a speech commemorating William Beveridge, the founder of the post-war welfare state in which he said "Our historic aim will be for ours to be the first generation to end child poverty." It became one of the flagship pledges of the Blair Government, and has come to dominate British social policy in recent years.

The Child Poverty Bill making its way through Parliament is laudable in its aims but the poverty targets it will make legally binding are badly flawed. The targets focus solely on income and define poverty in relative terms. As a result the Bill is actually about tackling inequality, which is not the same thing at all. Having less than other people does not by definition make you poor. And indeed, the perverse aspect of one of the targets – a reduction in the number of children living in households below 60 per cent of the median income – is that a recession will even appear to reduce child poverty, as the median income falls whilst the incomes of those on benefits do not.

The tragedy is that we do have a fair understanding of factors which do contribute to child poverty: living in a jobless household, low educational attainment and truancy, family breakdown, teenage smoking and obesity, to name but a few. Instead of drawing an arbitrary poverty line and fiddling with income distribution around it, we would do far better to address these root causes. In the long term, if we are serious about tackling poverty, we need to ask ourselves where the money can be best spent. Should we spend a pound increasing benefits or a pound improving education for the poorest for instance?

The Child Poverty Bill is built on skewed targets which could end up enshrined in law and be legally binding on all future governments, meaning repeated missed opportunities to really help children locked in the poverty trap. For this reason the Bill should be withdrawn. Instead, the Government should vigorously target the causes of poverty directly and focus on child wellbeing. Such an approach would have a far more tangible impact on underprivileged children, one that simply moves youngsters just over an over an arbitrary income line.

Natalie Evans is editor of Poverty of Ambition, a report into child poverty launched today by think tank Policy Exchange