What lessons can we learn from the limitations of Labour's efforts to end child poverty?
The experience of poverty in the UK is the struggle to make ends meet, die frustration and debilitation of dealing with inflexible and unsympathetic bureaucracies, employers, landlords and creditors, and, for many, the shame and alienation that can come with it. It can mean facing pernicious material choices that in today's Britain are unimaginable for most of us, such as whether to put adequate food on the table or to heat the home. It can mean lack of dignity, absence of control and immense time pressures without commensurate reward. Poverty is often compounded and reinforced by other aspects of disadvantage, including challenging neighbourhoods, absence of support and a lack of assets.
We believe that this is the context in which child poverty needs to be situated. Growing up in this kind of poverty has a profound impact on both childhood experience and life chances, at many different levels. For example, children from poor households have worse average educational outcomes and are much more likely to suffer from significant ill health, both in childhood and in adulthood.1
In an attempt to address the issue of children living in poverty, Labour pledged to eradicate child poverty in a generation, focusing on three main lines of attack: supporting family incomes (largely through child contingent measures); welfare to work policies; and a broader agenda aimed at improving children's life chances. This pledge was backed up by investment, energy and commitment, and initially substantial progress was made. There were 900,000 fewer children in poverty (i.e. living below 60 per cent of median income2) when Labour left office than in 19989; and there was good progress on a range of other indicators, in terms of parental employment, family incomes and child well-being.3 A number of reviews of Labour's approach have concluded that where there was significant investment, positive gains were made, particularly in the early years of New Labour.4
Yet to acknowledge these successes should not mask the failings. Labour's goal of halving child poverty by 2010 was not met. And their goal of eradicating child poverty within a generation would require a sustained reduction over the next decade at a level that has not been seen since comparable records started being collected fifty years ago. At present, the Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts that by 2012-13 child poverty will begin to rise.5
The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats signed up to the agenda of eradicating child poverty during the last parliament and both supported the Child Poverty Bill just prior to the 2010 election, but there are significant differences in approach. The Conservative narrative focuses substantially on welfare dependency; their critique of Labour is that they concentrated on the wrong thing and exacerbated the problem. This view is coupled with the notion that the state simply can't deliver the kinds of social change which Labour hoped for. Here the 'big society' is central. Meanwhile Nick Clegg has expressed scepticism about efforts to increase family incomes - 'poverty plus a pound is not enough' - and has sought to define 'fairness' in terms of social mobility rather than income inequality: 'For old progressives, reducing snapshot income inequality is the ultimate goal. For new progressives, reducing the barriers to mobility is'.6
With current policy proposals likely to exacerbate poverty, we are seeing little sign of the kind of shift in direction that would be needed to meet the 2020 target. In addition, the conditions have changed substantially: we are no longer 'sharing the proceeds of growth - instead we are in a period of unprecedented cuts, and arguing over the future of the welfare state. What's more, the poorest parts of our society have still not recovered from the dismantling of industrial communities and …