“The reality is that families managing on low incomes are being hit hard by cuts to services, having to turn to food banks to supplement a much reduced safety net.”
“Focusing on getting parents back into work is important but, at present, most of those in poverty are working and the stark reality is that some parents can be worse off in work than being unemployed.”
Statements from the National Children’s Bureau (NCB) and 4Children respectively seemed to match the reaction of many to the government’s proposals to end child poverty by 2020. The government’s ambition, set out in a consultation document published last week, is admirable, but the reality on the ground is far-removed from the spin of Westminster.
The consultation is certainly wide-ranging, but its overwhelming focus on employment and education ignores the devastation that has been caused by the coalition’s deep cuts to local services. Employment and education are, of course, fundamental – no argument there – but the fact that the 114-page consultation document does not mention the word “austerity” once is very telling.
Allow me to spell out what is missing. By 2015/16, there will have been £61 billion in spending cuts to services since 2010, excluding the social security budget. This includes £5.5 billion from schools, £7.5 billion from further and higher education, £0.9 billion from early years, and £1 billion from health. The children’s commissioner for England reported these figures last summer.
She found that coalition economic policy will be responsible for pushing 600,000 more children into poverty, under the official definition (those living in families whose income before housing costs is less than 60 per cent of the median), by 2015. This means that 2.9 million children will be living in poverty by the end of next year. If we use another accepted definition – family income of less than £17,000 – then 3.5 million children are currently in poverty.
So what does the consultation document tackle? Well in some places it is little more than a list of existing government policies, some of which have clear links to child poverty, but others that look uncomfortably like padding, with tenuous explanations as to why they will help reduce child poverty. To pick two education examples of the latter, the plan cites more autonomy for schools as part of the strategy and even lists performance-related pay for teachers.
There are also contradictions. Raising the qualification requirements for new entrants to teaching is also part of the plan, but this is at odds with academies and free schools being able to employ non-qualified teachers.
Admirable policies such as the Pupil Premium and the extension of free school meals to all year 1 and 2 pupils are rightly referenced, but the problem is that there is nothing new, nothing specific or radical, nothing that will help families to overcome the impact of coalition austerity.
The plan is simply a list of existing government policy, centred on trying to get more people into work, raise educational achievement and reduce living costs – fine and good, but I would suggest that every government that has ever come to office has heralded these strategies (with little impact on levels of child poverty).
Incidentally, the focus on employment being the route out of poverty is over-simplistic. It is important, but six in 10 children living in poverty live in working families, and while the consultation touches upon work to drive up wages, it commits to nothing more than a “review” of the minimum wage and a “review” of zero-hours contracts.
The document lists some good government policies, but many poor and downright irrelevant ones too – all rolled up with a raft of obvious statements and aspirations. The glaring black hole is the omission of any acknowledgement or attempt to deal with the effects of austerity. And the fact it does not deal honestly with this issue is a sign that this is probably a document published because it legally had to be (under the Child Poverty Act 2010), and not because this issue is at the heart of government policy.