Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Can Child Poverty Be Abolished? Promises and Policies in the UK

Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Can Child Poverty Be Abolished? Promises and Policies in the UK

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

In May 1997, the 'New Labour' government of Tony Blair came into office in the UK. At the time, the UK had one of the highest relative poverty rates amongst industrialised countries. As Table 1 shows, against a poverty line of 60 per cent of national median income, the UK's overall relative poverty rate in the late 1990s of 21 per cent was behind only the USA, Australia, and Spain of the countries shown at around the same time. For children, the UK's position was worse, with its 27 per cent poverty rate falling below only that of the USA.

The new government did not originally stress poverty reduction as one of its policy priorities--the only reference to it in Labour's 1997 election manifesto had been in the contexts of reducing welfare dependency and helping people into jobs. However, starting in March 1998 a series of measures was announced that have both radically reformed and injected large additional resources into support for families with children through the tax and benefit system. In a lecture in March 1999, Tony Blair described levels of child deprivation in Britain as 'frightening', and made an unexpected pledge to 'end child poverty forever' within 20 years (Blair 1999). While a definition of this target was not given at the time, the context implied that this was a target for relative poverty, and indeed an immediate target was set of cutting child poverty against a relative target by a quarter between 1998-99 and 2004-05. (2) The government has now said that for the longer term, success in eradicating child poverty could be interpreted as achieving measures of deprivation (families being unable to afford key items) that 'approached zero' and 'being amongst the best in Europe on relative low incomes' (Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) 2003). The low income measure is similar to that used in Table 1, with the implication that the UK would have to cut its child poverty rate on this basis from more than 25 per cent in the late 1990s to match the single figure rates of the Scandinavian countries by 2020.

Historically, income inequality and with it relative poverty, particularly for children grew rapidly in the UK in the 1980s. In 1979 the proportion of children living in households with income below 60% of the median was 12%. By 1996/97 it was 25%. What explanations have been offered for the growth in child poverty in the UK and for this poor performance in European and international terms?

   * The combination of a high lone parenthood rate, and of very high
   poverty rates amongst lone parent families. Amongst twenty-five
   countries surveyed by Bradbury and Jantii (2001: Table 3.3) using
   Luxembourg Income Study data, the proportion of children living in
   lone mother households in the UK (19%) was the highest, and the
   proportion of these families that were poor (40% against a standard
   of 50 per cent of national median income) was higher than in any of
   the countries apart from the USA, Canada, and Germany. In 1979 the
   UK proportion of children in lone parent families was 10% (Gregg et
   al 1999: Table 1)

   * Overall, a fifth of all children in Britain lived in households
   where no one had income from work in the mid-1990s, the highest of
   eighteen countries surveyed by Gregg and Wadsworth (2001: Figure 3)
   and an increase from 8% in 1979. This is not all due to the high
   rates of lone-parenthood: the 1980s and 1990s were characterised by
   a polarisation of work among couple parents, with a rising numbers
   of dual earner and no-earner families (Gregg and Wadsworth 2001).

   * A high dispersion of earnings in OECD terms, with one of the
   largest increases in that dispersion between the early 1980s and
   late 1990s, and hence significant rates of low income even amongst
   families with income from work. Even children with both parents in
   work experienced an increase in poverty risk in the late 1990s
   (Bradshaw 2000). … 
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