Saturday, 16 June 2012

A brief guide to obscuring child poverty

As I write this Ireland are losing to Spain in the European championships – but only because we insist on measuring success by how many goals are scored. Football is about entertainment, excitement, lots of money and according to my more lecherous friends the sexiness of the players. Why insist on only counting goals?

When Sepp Blatter stands down as FIFA president Ireland should vote for Ian Duncan-Smith as his replacement. We know that poverty especially child poverty is now rising. Thursday’s announcement of reducing child poverty figures describes the situation as it existed 2-years ago. It is acknowledged probably the last positive set of figures for child poverty maybe for a decade. The solution proposed by Ian Duncan-Smith today is to change what we count. Don’t count incomes and levels of deprivation as we do now but instead count other factors he believes are important to poverty, such as addiction, “worklessness” etc.

Ending poverty by changing the definition of poverty is not an original idea, but what makes this variation particularly worrying is that it is openly driven by the need to justify lowering the costs of benefit payments – and even worse it seeks to measure factors that have been consistently used by the press and politicians to blame the poor for poverty.
Should the proposal go through, every-time that the political poison of rising child poverty figures are released they will be accompanied by the political antidote of an itemised list of the failings of parents in order to divert the blame.

Ian Duncan-Smith, when making the announcement on the Today programme, chose to tell a selective story of poverty and welfare spending during the 2000’s as a justification for the change.  The story goes that by focusing on incomes the Labour government spent huge amounts of money on benefits, which meant that 4.5 million people stayed on “out of work benefits” because it was better for them to stay on benefits than work. At one moment of revealing hyperbole he suggested that that was what caused deficits and was bankrupting the country!

Let’s leave aside the fact that enough money to pay all unemployment benefit for a quarter of a century was created on Thursday by the Bank of England in order to lend to banks suggests some more substantial causes for our economic problems. The 4.5 million workless people he talked of were not the unemployed – they were not people unable or unwilling to work – they were those on sickness and disability benefits. Their barrier to work was not that benefits were too high but that they were assessed by independent agencies to be unfit to work. I have blogged on this repeated inference that [workless = unemployed = lazy] before – and how it has been repeatedly used to stigmatise people who are least able to defend themselves.

Child Poverty and Tax credits
During the years of economic growth the labour market polarised with increasing low paid employment and vast increases for those near the top of the income scale. This created a large number of families in work but also in poverty. These families as well as those unable to work were left far behind. New Labour’s solution was to focus government money on pensioners and on families with children. It worked in reducing pensioner poverty and child poverty. This ameliorated the problem that the economy does not give the poorest any of the money generated from economic growth – but did not address the underlying problem. It also meant that the poor single and childless were in a great deal of trouble. 
The price of ameliorating this problem will continue to rise if economic growth is unfairly shared. It is obvious but worth saying this is not a trend that was caused by the poorest – it has been driven by the market demands of those with money.

Ian Duncan-Smith’s announcement neither recognises nor wishes to deal with the underlying problem, and it also rejects New Labour’s amelioration plan because of its cost. Instead it seeks to identify the “flaws” in the poor implying, contrary to the evidence, that it is these “flaws” that are driving poverty. 
Government and independent analysts recognise that without increases in benefits or radical change in the labour market the Child Poverty Targets will not be met. The new proposals will set new targets - maybe ones that can be met – but which will inevitably add more stigma to the poor while drawing attention away from the underlying problem that even when the economy is working well the proceeds do not reach the poorest.