In the Beveridge Lecture, 1999, Tony Blair asserted that ‘it is our historic aim that ours is the first generation to end child poverty forever.’ Critically evaluate New Labour family policy within the context of this statement.
Some argue that poverty in an ‘absolute’ form does not exist in Britain today:
`A family is poor if it cannot afford to eat. It is not poor if it cannot afford endless smokes and it does not become poor by the mere fact that other people can afford them…By any absolute standard there is very little poverty in Britain today.’
(Sir Keith Joseph, Equality, 1979 in Honderich, 2004).
Others believe that being poor is not simply a case of not having the necessities of life, clothing, shelter, clean water etc; these view poverty as a socially constructed phenomenon which is ‘relative’ to the society in which they live:
‘…people are poverty-stricken when their income, even if adequate for survival, falls markedly behind that of the community. Then they cannot have what the larger community regards as the decency; and they cannot wholly escape, therefore, the judgment of the larger community that they are indecent. They are degraded, for, in a literal sense, they live outside the grades or categories which the community regards as respectable.’
(Galbraith, J. K., 1958, The Affluent Society, pp. 323-324
in Hernandez, 1994, p.13).
Just as there are alternate views of poverty itself, so there are contrasting methods used to measure levels of poverty: whilst some view the poverty line as based on income and expenditure, Households Below Average Income (HBAI), others add a measure of deprivation based on items people lack, the
Poverty and Social Exclusion Survey (PSE). Until recently the most commonly
used, official indicator of poverty was 50 per cent of mean disposable income adjusted for household size. More recently, European studies have a propensity to use a standard of 60 per cent of the contemporary median income level adjusted for household size: since 1999, in their Opportunity for All yearly reports, the government have adopted this as a precursor of poverty for those living in Britain (Piachaud ; Sutherland, 2002).
Although evidence suggests that certain groups are more likely to suffer from poverty; ethnic minorities, the sick and the disabled, the elderly and people claiming benefits, some commentators, Bel Littlejohn (2000), Polly Toynbee (2000) and James Morrison (2001) each claim those living in poverty are either swindling the public and the state or are simply the result of bad parenting.
Others, notably the New Right, argue that the welfare state itself breeds a lazy workforce through a ‘culture of dependency’: where poorer members of society may not bother working as they can obtain similar rates of pay from the welfare state itself (Haralambos and Holborn, 1997 p.147). In opposition to these arguments, David Brindle (2000) and Robert Bennett (2000) respectively, counter that there is no such thing as a dependency culture and that the welfare state fails many members of society, children included. Many others maintain
that poverty is much more than simply missing certain lifestyle items, such as
fashionable clothing or household equipment: they argue for the subsequent
poverty of health and opportunity, which follows children into adulthood.
These arguments of cause-and-effect revolve around poor housing, poor parenting, dropping out of school without qualifications, or living on dangerous estates. They assert that poor children often become poor adults, working for low pay, facing conflict with the police and greater chances of problems with drug and alcohol abuse. Indeed, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown MP, speaking about child poverty at the Sure Start Conference on 7 July 1999, acknowledges that poverty is a many-sided problem which requires many-sided solutions:
‘We know that children who grow up in poor families are less likely to reach their full potential, less likely to stay on at school, or even attend school, more likely to fall into the dead end of unemployment and poverty as an adult, more likely to become unmarried teenage mothers, more likely to be in the worst jobs or no jobs at all, more likely to be trapped in a no win situation – poor when young, unemployed when older… So today I want to set out our four point plan – as part of our 20 year strategy to abolish child poverty. A four point plan committed to giving every child the best possible start in life, a plan that involves cash and care, new finance and a better deal for families.’
(Brown, 1999: para.9).
The years preceding Tony Blair’s public statement, 1979-1999, a time of Conservative Party policies, the proportion of children living in households with relatively low incomes had increased dramatically: in 1979 one in ten
children lived in households with below average incomes, compared to one in three in 1999 (Piachaud & Sutherland, 2001). Many commentators believe this
substantial increase was due to three principle changes: the growth of lone-
parent families, headed by women not in paid work; the relative growth in unemployment, levels of unemployment had not yet returned to those seen in the 1970’s and finally, the rise in male inactivity, especially for men aged fifty and over (ibid., p.f86). Furthermore, HM Treasury (1999) attributed the growth in the number of poor children in ‘working’ households to two central changes: more working households rely on part-time work which is insufficient to lift the household out of relative poverty and the inequalities of income between the top and bottom wage structures.
New Labour and child poverty
When Tony Blair made public, in 1999, his objective of, not just reducing, but eradicating child poverty, it is generally agreed that around a quarter of Britain’s population, fourteen million people, representing over one fifth of Britain’s total population, were classed as living in poverty (Department for Social Security, 2001). Although the PSE utilised slightly different indicator values, they too found this figure to be relatively accurate: their estimate of those living in poverty was slightly higher, at 14.5 million (Gordon, et al, 1999). Of these statistics, it is widely acknowledged that children accounted for some 3-4 million: around 24 per cent. It is not just the large number of children
who are touched by poverty that are a problem, but also the numbers who are
always poor. Data tracking child poverty over time also reveals that significant
numbers of children are living in poverty year after year. Being poor year in year out may result in serious implications for a child’s well being and future
life changes. Subsequent reports placed Britain’s child poverty record on the world stage: the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), found that 6.1 per cent of Britain’s population would be poor throughout a six-year period. They also held that 38.4 per cent of Britain’s population would be poor at least once over the same period (Oxley et al., 2000:14). Added to this, UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, found that Britain had the third worst record, out of nineteen countries, for children living in relative poverty in the industrialised world. The report also added that even when child poverty rates were measured on an ‘absolute’ basis, Britain remained one of the top six worst countries for occurrences of child poverty (UNICEF, 2000:4&7). Given these figures and findings, it is little wonder that child poverty became to be such a priority for Tony Blair’s Labour government.
Following the election of a Labour government in 1997, as part of the government’s strategic approach to tackling social exclusion, the Prime Minister established the Social Exclusion Unit (SEU) whose remit was to work
on specific projects, through consultation with other civil servants and interested groups. Within two years, at the time of its first review (Cabinet
Office, 1999) the SEU had released no more than five publications, each
examining particular types of social exclusion: from Truancy and School Exclusion (May 1998); to Rough Sleeping (July 1998) and Bridging the Gap:
new opportunities for 16-18 year olds not in education, employment or training (July 1999). The work of the SEU led to a change in the way the government understood social exclusion and more widely, the findings from these publications, later fed into the government’s policy for reporting its wider anti-poverty strategy. In 1999, coinciding with Tony Blair’s statement, the government published its first anti-poverty strategy document, Opportunity for All, which declared its aims of reducing poverty by extending opportunities to all children.
Taking its lead from past research, as seen from the SEU amongst others, the report held that, although ‘some’ children were able to fight their way out of poverty in later years, the majority were ensnared by the vicious circle of poverty: ‘we know that disadvantage in childhood can result in children being unable to develop their full potential. This leads to a poorer society for all of us.’ (DSS, 1999, Ch.3:1). Whilst recognising that no single aspect or statistic could depict all the disadvantages caused by social exclusion, this document went on to identify some key features which determined current and future levels of child poverty and social exclusion in Britain: low income; workless parents; access
to educational opportunities; health inequalities and poor environments. The report went on to show how these key features are all interconnected and go to produce a continuation of the child poverty/adult poverty cycle:
‘Children in low-income families are disproportionately more likely to suffer from poor health and live in worse environments. Children experiencing poor health tend to do less well at school. This means that to make a difference we need to tackle all the problems simultaneously: improving health and
education services; ensuring children grow up in decent quality housing; and helping parents back to work’.
Notwithstanding these findings, the government had, inexplicably, agreed to stick to Tory spending plans for two years, thereby pledging not to increase direct taxation: without which, it is generally acknowledged poverty, of any sort, could not be challenged (Bradshaw, 2001:13). Indeed, one of the first social policy acts of the New Labour government was to implement the Tory plan to abolish the lone-parent premium in income support and one parent benefit (ibid.). This had the effect of ‘increasing’ rather than reducing the numbers living in poverty: concurrently, this meant the numbers of children ‘affected’ by poverty increased in real terms. This abolition, in direct conflict with New Labour’s ‘espoused policy to encourage lone-parents into the labour market’ (ibid:14) meant that those who remained in workless households, and thus dependant on Income Support, found themselves receiving welfare
benefits that were seriously below the poverty level. Many declared that this selective strategy had the danger of creating a two-class Britain: poor families with little or no pay receiving government subsidy or benefit and other families who receive little state support (CASE, 2000). This was seen as a bad start for the Labour Government’s ‘poverty reduction’ strategy: inside Parliament alone,
a letter, signed by 120 MP’s, was sent to the Chancellor condemning the cuts to lone parents’ benefits (op cit:107). Jonathon Bradshaw believes the outcry
against these cuts, contributed to the shift in policy, subsequently resulted in
child poverty being centre-stage in Labour’s domestic family policy (ibid:14).
In his speech to the aforementioned Sure Start Conference, Gordon Brown, summed up the government’s recognition of certain key features relating to child poverty, and the actions that would be necessary to rectify them:
‘Child poverty is a scar on the soul of Britain. That is why Tony Blair has said we must aim to abolish child poverty over 20 years…It is essential that we address the causes of poverty and provide support where and when it is most needed…First…increased financial support for families to tackle child poverty…Second…improving public services…Third mobilise…government, local and national…Fourth…make sure that all our schools are as good as our best.’
Although an emphasis on child poverty is notable, we can see that it forms only a part of this government’s anti-poverty strategy: the strategy is seen as a ‘whole’ combative exercise aimed at achieving reductions, not only in child
poverty itself, but also the ‘indicators’ of poverty as a more general theme. As a result, the policy responses to child poverty extend across many different expressions of family policy. As these changes suggest, policy on income-poverty among families has a clear emphasis on promoting work The Government summarised this overall approach as follows:
‘In the past, attempts to deal with these issues often focused on short term,
piecemeal solutions. Huge sums were spent dealing with immediate problems, very little on preventing problems occurring in the future. Our
approach is radically different…In order to achieve our goal, we are adopting a three-pronged approach to tackle the root causes of poverty and social exclusion, to give all children the best possible chance in life. Ensuring
that all children get a high-quality education wherever they go to school…Combating family poverty and social exclusion through our policies
to tackle worklessness, increasing financial support for families and improving the environment in which children grow up. Supporting vulnerable young people, especially in the difficult transition from childhood to adult life.’
(DSS, 1999 pp.3 ; 45)
The first Opportunities for All document details the Governments various strategies to meet this overarching approach: in an attempt to counter the problems of educational opportunities, previously referred to on p.8, the Government proposed a three-pronged preventative measures with which to tackle the root causes of poverty and social exclusion. This saw over thirty-five policy combinations, each relating to, education; National Health Service; teenage conceptions; Sure Start; education maintenance allowances and the Children’s Fund (ibid, Ch.3:45-56). Further measures, relating to social
protection were employed by the Government, which changed the levels of earnings to be disregarded. This was mainly through the introduction of the 10 per cent lower earnings rate and increases to National Insurance lower earnings limit and Income Support levels: although this latter measure has lost value in real terms, due to the initial cuts made by New Labour (referred to on page 10).
Further measures introduced by the Government, were aimed at tackling poverty and social exclusion through neighbourhood measures: New Deal for
communities, Single Regeneration Budget and Education Action Zones. However, by far the most effective instrument of the Labour Government has been the introduction of labour market measures through the minimum wage;
maximise employment; New Deals; National Childcare Strategy; increases in child benefit; Working Families Tax Credits (WFTC) and Childcare tax credits (Bradshaw, 2001a). Although the Government claim the National Childcare Strategy was effected as a response to the following comments:
‘63% of non working mothers, and 78% of lone non working mothers, say they would work or study if they had access to the childcare of their choice’
(Number 10, 2004)
it is clear that the Governments commitment to reducing child poverty focuses heavily upon decreasing income inequality. However, as the Government itself has recently reviewed its ‘official’ definition of child poverty, Measuring Child Poverty document (DWP, 2003) care will have to be taken when analysing future policies aimed at reducing child poverty. Many believe these new terms of measurement could be used to ‘move the goalposts’ so to speak, and will vary from the 60 per cent of the contemporary median income level adjusted for household size, currently used by European and New Labour studies (p.4). The multi-policy attack on child poverty concurs with, and follows, current research, recognising that child poverty is not just about income as the nature
of disadvantage it is multi-faceted: poverty is about exclusion from a range of
quality services and inadequate participation at the civic, economic, social and
community level. Although many would applaud the Government for these policies, others would argue that, certain policies could have grounds for rethinking: The speech, made by the Chancellor, in the 1997 budget:
‘In place of welfare there should be work…I will address also the needs of
the two other important groups: lone parents and those in receipt of incapacity and disability benefits who, as a matter of principle, should also have the right to work.’
(Brown, 1997:paras.95 & 115)
could be seen, for example, as ‘demoting’ child rearing as a legitimate employment past time. Furthermore, the fact that the Government has placed such emphasis on the ‘workfare’ not welfare may stigmatise people who may actually have legitimate reasons for being unable to attend a place of employment. The fact that New Labour actually abolished certain benefits: Married Couples Allowance; Mortgage Tax Relief immediately increased the likelihood that some poor children, from families not in receipt of Income Support, have become worse off. Whilst others, in receipt of income support, with children over the age of eleven, have also become worse off due to the
loss of lone parent benefit (Bradshaw, 2001). Notwithstanding these anomalies,
the current Labour party family policy in Britain has shown improved
performance in educational achievement in the most deprived areas. The second annual report, The Changing Welfare State: Opportunity for All, One
Year On: making a difference (DSS, 2000) revealed that the indicators, used by the Government to measure reductions in poverty, were ‘moving in the right
direction’ (Bradshaw, 2001:17). The Government has also made good progress in reducing the number of children living in poverty: although statistics vary, it is generally accepted that the child poverty figure has been reduced by about one quarter, 0.5 million, in the five years since the resolution was made (Carvel, 2004). Further progress has been made in raising the in-work incomes
of poor working parents, and as long as jobs can be found, this strategy looks like it will further reduce child poverty (ibid, 23). There are programmes to reduce teenage pregnancy, to extend pre-school education, to reduce juvenile crime and so on. There is now a Cabinet committee on children and young people’s services, a Minister for Young People, and a Children and Young People’s Unit aimed at co-ordinating policies across different government.
To conclude, although good progress has been made by the Government, it has not been made so greatly in the social protection stakes: only about half of parents of poor children are helped by employment. The other half are self-
employed, students, sick or disabled, parents of young children or other
carers and those already working with low incomes. Despite the welcome increase in the income support scales from October 2000, the living standards
of families with children on income support remain a good deal below the poverty level (Bradshaw, 2001:23). The Government must make work pay, to a greater extent: this would involve the disagreeable decision of increasing public
spending overall: which we know is a very unpopular policy. In the words of
David Piachaud and Holly Sutherland (2001:41), the challenge of overcoming child poverty is a challenge to the whole society. What happens to the poorest, most vulnerable, least secure children reflects the society as a whole. The degree to which child poverty can be ended and children’s opportunities improved without confronting the broader inequalities in society is open to
question. Nevertheless, by focusing on the income and opportunities of the poorest, a significant start has been made towards ending child poverty. Much remains to be done, but as the Chancellor, in his speech to the Labour Party Spring Conference, stated:
‘…we will not rest until we achieve our goal: a Britain where through investment matched by reform we build world class public services offering opportunity for all and a Britain where we can say – that by resolute purpose and steady and sustained progress we became the generation that eradicated child poverty’
(Brown, 2004: para.13)
As an addendum, the charity Child Poverty Action Group remains concerned that taking 20 years to eradicate the problem of child poverty is not ambitious enough. It points out that it is far too early to know if many of the current government policies are actually working. Something only time can tell.
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