Labour’s record on child poverty: ambitious, radical and innovative

Labour MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, Gregg McClymont, reviews a new book assessing Labour’s record on eradicating child poverty.

Our guest writer is Gregg McClymont, Labour MP for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East; his full review of ‘Britain’s War on Poverty’ by Jane Waldfogel is available in the latest issue of Renewal.

Hardly a day goes by without a Coalition Minister or backbencher pronouncing on Labour’s supposed failure to reduce child poverty. Britain’s War on Poverty is therefore an important book. Written by a leading American social policy academic, Waldfogel’s book is authoritative and objective.

Its conclusion? Labour was ambitious, radical, and innovative. Labour succeeded both in reducing aggregate levels of child poverty substantially and improving child outcomes on a range of qualitative measures.

How did Labour do it? Labour’s strategy was fourfold:

1. Make work pay through the minimum wage and working tax credits;
2. Introduce new cash benefits aimed specifically at children;
3. Invest in early years through Sure Start and free child care; and
4. Invest in schools.

The result was that Labour halved child poverty in Britain within five years of taking office. Waldfogel comes to this conclusion by using an absolute measure of poverty, under which children living in households under a fixed income are defined as in poverty.

This is the measure commonly used in America. Waldfogel suggests that Labour fashioned a rod for its own back by insisting on a tough measure of relative poverty – 60 per cent of median income in any given year – to evaluate their reforms against.

She is right. But Labour’s ambitious commitment to this relative poverty target can be looked at in another way: this target undermines the claim that Labour abandoned in office egalitarian objectives. Labour’s concern with relative poverty meant that narrowing income inequality was at the heart of (this) government policy.

Of course, stagnation in relation to this tough moving target since 2005 is the source of the disingenuous Tory-Liberal claim that child poverty increased under the previous government. This is manifestly false, and Waldfogel says so.

Both relative and absolute poverty have increased since 2005, but are substantially down since 1997. Two million fewer children live in households in absolute poverty than in 1997, while 500,000 fewer live in households in relative poverty. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has estimated that in the absence of Labour’s reforms relative child poverty would have increased by two million since 1997, as a result of rising median income.

Labour’s ambition and achievement convinced the Conservative Party that it too must address poverty and inequality, at least rhetorically. The consequences of this shifting of the centre-ground are now becoming evident. Britain’s War on Poverty demonstrates that government action and public spending are essential to an effective anti-poverty drive. But deep cuts to services and benefits, coupled with an economic policy that is prepared to tolerate high levels of unemployment, are unlikely to lead to fair outcomes.

Where will this leave the ‘progressive’ Coalition? Waldfogel amuses when she quotes from a speech made by current Liberal Democrat Pensions minister Steve Webb. During the debate on the Child Poverty Act of 2009, he argued that ‘to hear Conservatives suggest that they even care about this subject, and that it would be some sort of priority, is frankly unbelievable’ (p. 150). She was writing, of course, before the Coalition came to power.

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