The poverty of politics

Ripped from any wider debate about living standards, the discussion of ‘child poverty’ is as much to do with controlling adults as helping kids.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

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Topics Politics

‘This is a moral disgrace. In 1999, we were all excited by the government’s determination to eradicate child poverty and, on the way, to halve it by 2010. It is now clear that what they meant was that they intended, not to halve child poverty by 2010, but to reduce it a bit.’ (1)

So said Martin Narey, head of the British children’s charity Barnardo’s, in response to figures published this week which show that the number of children living in poverty in the UK has increased for the first time in six years. It does indeed look like the government will fall a long way short of its own targets, despite the fact that Chancellor Gordon Brown unveiled measures in his recent Budget to continue tackling poverty.

But how true is it that millions of British children live in poverty? And why is there a myopic focus on child poverty, when children do not generate any material wealth? Surely it is a lack of opportunities and resources amongst adults that causes some families to be poor?

The new figures claim that 3.8million children live in poverty. This doesn’t mean, however, that there are 3.8million children on the streets of Britain, begging for help. What is being discussed here is relative poverty – those families whose post-tax income is less than 60 per cent of the median income (2). According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), relative poverty currently means a household income after tax, but before housing costs, of £217 per week (and a bit more for families with children) (3). Ten per cent of the population live on less than £160 per week.

It is a pretty miserable existence, no doubt. But most of the families who fall under the ‘poverty’ heading do not have problems with housing (though too many of them still live in temporary accommodation), food, heating or the other basics of life. In fact, they will usually have access to things that would, not long ago, have been regarded as luxuries, like colour TVs, phones and so on. And, in theory, these families have much the same access as the rest of the population to healthcare, schools and other public services, though of course the quality of the services they receive differs from that enjoyed by a family in some leafy suburb. Life may be a grind for families who earn less than 60 per cent of the median income, but it isn’t Angela’s Ashes.

Nor is it the case that these poor families have got poorer. In real terms, over the past year or so, they have probably been standing still. It is just that the benefits they receive are not rising as fast as median wages, so they are relatively worse off under the measurement of poverty relative to the median income. Over the past decade, by both absolute and relative measures, almost all sections of society – children, pensioners, working adults (with or without children) – have become significantly better off. For example, IFS makes a comparison using an absolute measure: the poverty line income of 1996-97. And on this basis, 26.7 per cent of children were poor in 1996-97, and 11.4 per cent of children were poor in 2005-06. Looked at this way, the level of child poverty has already more than halved.

The government must be kicking itself for setting a moving target on poverty. Instead of suggesting that there is a basic level of income that people need in order to meet various essentials of life, the government set a target that was tied to incomes, which have been rising faster than inflation. Meanwhile, many benefits, like Jobseekers’ Allowance (aka ‘the dole’), have only kept pace with prices – so those who rely on them have been getting relatively, if not absolutely, poorer. Those who are dependent on welfare, but who are not parents or pensioners, have seen almost no increase in their living standards.

An interesting aspect of the debate is how much poverty has dropped off the political radar. As Polly Toynbee notes in today’s Guardian: ‘[Work and pensions] minister Jim Murphy says he gets more letters from his constituents on Spanish donkeys and circus elephants than on child poverty – and Britain doesn’t even have any circus elephants. The Treasury gets too little public or political pressure on this, so there is only Labour’s self-applied pressure, like an Opus Dei thigh-spike, forcing them to do the right thing for its own sake.’ (4)

Yet poverty should never be seen in isolation from the wider problem of raising living standards. The problem of wealth will never truly be solved unless our aim is to have the best possible life for everyone. Fixing wealth inequalities should not be reduced to moral pleading, the politics of pity, based on ‘rescuing’ those who apparently live in Dickensian-like conditions. Such an approach writes off those who live in relative poverty as helpless individuals who need the patronage of caring and better-minded political actors and commentators; it does nothing to put the case for improved standards of living across the board.

The absence of a real debate about poverty is one symptom of the end of any clash of visions over the future of society, and how it might be substantially different from today. If the world in 20 years time is going to look much the same as it does now, then of course the most we can hope for is to share the pie out a bit more equally between the rich and the poor. To the extent that poverty is discussed today, there is a fatalistic streak in the discussion: the assumption is that society will not fundamentally change, except perhaps by the measurement of median incomes, and therefore the best we can hope to do is increase the wealth of the poorer sections of society by small, incremental amounts.

In its poverty agenda, the government seems much more concerned with ‘social exclusion’ than real wealth inequalities. ‘Social exclusion’ is a multi-faceted assessment of the degree to which someone has apparently slipped outside of social norms, of which the ability to pay your way is only a small part. This week also saw prime minister Tony Blair announcing plans for early intervention into the lives of children, with ‘active case management’ of those most likely to become criminals from ‘the earliest possible point’ (5). This suggests the government is much more concerned with control than raising living standards, with monitoring children through to adulthood rather than raising their material wealth or aspirations.

In this respect, the emphasis on child poverty – rather than tackling poverty per se – is pertinent. It sums up the passive, and patronising, relationship between the poor and the authorities. In essence, there is no such thing as ‘child poverty’ – a child is only poor because his or her parents are poor, because they do not have fruitful employment or sufficient welfare assistance. Focusing on ‘child poverty’ is a way of avoiding having the tough arguments about the causes of ‘adult poverty’. Addressing why some adults are poor would mean looking at employment, welfare, choice, opportunities and how to satisfy all adults’ needs and desires; the ‘child poverty’ agenda, by contrast, allows the authorities to present the poor as victims who just need a bit more pocket money and a cuddle.

Focusing on ‘child poverty’ is also a way of circumventing adult society, of getting around those parents who care and are responsible for these poor children. When the government declares that its intention is to rescue children from poverty, the underlying message is that the parents cannot be trusted to do a good job. This should be a reminder that in politics today children have become a moral lever through which social engineering can be enforced. So the next phase of the campaign on child poverty will be to push lone parents into work, whether they like it or not. While this may ultimately make those parents slightly better off, it will also tie them much more tightly into society, squeezing them between holding down a job and avoiding cuts in their already meagre benefits. Behind the child poverty agenda there lurks some stern lectures for poor adults.

For New Labour and its supporters, the goal of ending child poverty has become something of a moral mission rather than a lively and practical debate about wealth and opportunity. You can see the thinking: never mind the Iraq war and the various other scandals, at least we’re going to end child poverty, right? As Polly Toynbee puts it: ‘[The child poverty campaign] was one solid rock on which Labour could stake its moral claims. That astonishing promise to abolish all child poverty by 2020 was Labour’s trump card when it faces the sullen looks of its shrunken remaining troops.’

That the war on child poverty has taken on a largely moral, almost religious character can be seen in Toynbee’s description of the poverty agenda as being like an ‘Opus Dei thigh-spike’ in the leg of Labour supporters. As well as looking like an updated version of the idea that the poor are an eternal pain in the butt (or the thigh), this choice of image points to a combination of self-flagellation and self-congratulation that makes up the government’s child poverty programme today.

As long as there is a free market, there will be inequality. To believe that the government can simply abolish poverty, like it might abolish foxhunting or a certain kind of tax, is fanciful. But no more fanciful than the idea that tackling child poverty was ever simply about making people better off.

Previously on spiked

Neil Davenport criticised attempts to punish young people, rather than inspire them, and asked why the government won’t leave lone parents alone. Daniel Ben-Ami showed how current thinking about equality has become degraded. Mick Hume advised left-wingers to stop fantasising about Gordon Brown’s premiership. Or read more at: spiked issue British politics

(1) More UK children live in poverty, BBC News, 27 March 2007

(2) ‘The median divides the income distribution into two equal parts, one having incomes above the median and the other having incomes below the median.’ Data Definitions – A Glossary of Terms Frequently Used in the Presentation of Economic and Demographic Data, STATS Indiana

(3) Poverty and inequality in the UK: 2007, Institute of Fiscal Studies, 27 March 2007

(4) The public worry more about Spanish donkeys than child poverty, Guardian, 30 March 2007

(5) Every child to be screened for risk of turning criminal under Blair justice plan, Guardian, 28 March 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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