Leading article: An undesirable legacy

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The term "poverty" has long been a problem. Ever since the social reformer Seebohm Rowntree decided to create a standard measure more than a century ago, society's definition of deprivation has been in flux. And with our increasingly globalised outlook, the question of what constitutes poverty has grown more difficult. The deprivation prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, is clearly of a different order from that found on many British sink estates. Yet we habitually label both as poverty.

It is difficult to deny, however, that in a British context at least the Government has succeeded in reducing the level of deprivation. A report from the Department for Work and Pensions yesterday confirmed that about 700,000 children in the UK have been lifted out of poverty (defined as those living in families earning less than 60 per cent of average income) since 1997. A succession of measures to boost the incomes of the less well off - the minimum wage and tax credits - have been an important factor behind this.

Tony Blair is right to argue that the best way to lift families from poverty is to get them off benefits and into work that pays properly. And perhaps Gordon Brown's greatest contribution to the fight against poverty has been his stewardship of a stable, job-creating economy over the past nine years. The Government has also rightly recognised that work-linked initiatives alone are insufficient. The Sure Start childcare system established in deprived neighbourhoods five years ago will take time to show results. But it is already playing a useful role in freeing parents to participate in training and education, not to mention giving poor children an improved start in life.

Yet there is a sense that the Government is failing to reach those at the very bottom. There are some wards in the country where more than 90 per cent of children live in poverty. Part of the problem is that Government policy is still a rather blunt tool. For those with severe mental, addiction or health problems, for example, or for those caring for infirm partners or disabled children, tax credits and Sure Start are often meaningless. Nor is it only families that continue to find themselves in apparently inescapable poverty. There are still hundreds of thousands of poor pensioners in the UK.

And there are wider forces in our society that the Government must contain if poverty is to be eradicated. Inequality is growing. And there are worrying signs that social mobility is declining. The good the Government has done in improving the quality of life for those at the bottom of the heap is at real risk of being undone if such trends go unchecked. And this is not a legacy that either Mr Blair or Mr Brown would desire.

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