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.

12 Responses to “Labour’s record on child poverty: ambitious, radical and innovative”

  1. Rosie

    RT @leftfootfwd: Labour’s record on child poverty: ambitious, radical and innovative: //bit.ly/aUukXg by @greggmcclymont

  2. Lawrie Morgan-Klein

    RT @leftfootfwd Labour’s record on child poverty: ambitious, radical and innovative: //bit.ly/aUukXg by @greggmcclymont

  3. Andy Sutherland

    RT @leftfootfwd: Labour’s record on child poverty: ambitious, radical and innovative: //bit.ly/aUukXg by @greggmcclymont

  4. Chris Goulden

    RT @leftfootfwd Labour’s record on child poverty: ambitious, radical and innovative: //bit.ly/aUukXg by @greggmcclymont

  5. Mr Jabberwock

    “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.”

    nobody, but nobody, becomes poorer because other people get richer. They may feel poorer, and that is a legitimate concern, but they are not poorer and it is just makes you look foolish to say that they are

  6. Loic Menzies

    "Labour halved child poverty in Britain within five years of taking office." //bit.ly/aUukXg via @Chris_Goulden

  7. Chris Goulden

    RT @LKMco "Labour halved child poverty in Britain within five years of taking office." //bit.ly/aUukXg < um I didn't say that btw

  8. James Stafford

    @mr. Jabberwock. You do your moniker justice. This government,the last government,and every other government in Europe uses a relative measure of poverty. Why? Because inequality matters. It’s wrong to allow large numbers of people to be left behind when a country gets richer. More than anything,it suggests the economy isn’t working as well as it should-that,surprise surprise, ‘trickle down’ is a lie. That’s why the last government tried to redistribute. That said, I hope that, on the basis of your preference for the absolute poverty measure,you’ll be telling people that labour succeeded in halving child poverty.

  9. Chris

    Nick Clegg can stick that in his sanctimonious pipe and smoke it, fucking twat!!!

  10. TWEETOFF Donation

    Labour's record on child poverty: ambitious, radical and … //bit.ly/chtFGL

  11. Ash

    Mr Jabberwock

    “nobody, but nobody, becomes poorer because other people get richer. They may feel poorer, and that is a legitimate concern, but they are not poorer and it is just makes you look foolish to say that they are”

    Sure – if you use ‘poorer’ to mean ‘poorer in absolute terms’. If you use it to mean ‘poorer in relative terms’, though, people *do* get poorer when other people get richer. It’s no use just insisting that you know what ‘poor’ *really* means; it means whatever people use it to mean, which very often – more often than not in political discussions, in fact – is ‘relatively poor’.

    The question of whether relative poverty matters, or only absolute poverty matters, is a legitimate but separate question. (To which the answer is ‘of course it matters; it’s a Bad Thing for people to be way outside the mainstream of society in terms of the quality of life they’re able to enjoy. Someone who couldn’t afford a TV in 1960, or a car in 1970, or central heating in 1980, or a computer in 1990, might not have been ‘poor’ at the time – loads of people on average incomes were in the same boat – but surely we’d consider someone ‘poor’ in 2010 who couldn’t afford any of those things.

  12. Matthew Doye

    Gregg McClymont seeks to paint Labour’s record on child poverty as one of unalloyed success and to accept, without reservation, Waldfogel’s assessment. These claims, I argue, fall short of reality.

    Was Labour’s programme innovative? Tax credits were hardly so, they had been around for over twenty years in the United States, similarly the other measures outlined were proven successes elsewhere. Was it radical? It was a change certainly, and a welcome one but that does not make it radical, there are no indelible institutions or practices that have arisen as a result. Was it ambitious? Certainly, and in some ways overly so; it was this very over-ambition that led to its downfall.

    To say that Britain halved its child poverty rate whilst, at the same time, saying that the government chose a particularly hard measure. It must have been obvious to the author that any claim of halving child poverty can only be true if the measure chosen is an entirely different one to the accepted measure and, indeed, to the one chosen by that same Labour government, indeed the article goes halfway to saying so yet still chooses to put this claim in boldface.

    The reasons for choosing the measure that the government did were not ones of wanting to choose a particularly hard one to achieve, they are ones of expediency; it is a simple one being tracked against income, it was the middle choice of the three most often published percentages (indeed of the ones the government chooses to publish itself) and it avoids the criticism levelled at measures of absolute poverty. This is discussed more fully, together with criticisms of the measure, in “The government’s child poverty target: how much progress has been made?” by Brewer, Clark and Goodman, Institute for Fiscal Studies, 2002.

    The achievements of the first Labour government led by Tony Blair should be recognised, even if one criticizes the use of simple measures, the percentage of children living in households below 60% of CMI (AHC) fell from 34% to 31% and during Blair’s second government from 31% to 28% however, after the third general election win, during the partly Blair and mostly Brown governments it was allowed to rise back up to 30% (2009 figures). This additional 2% represents some quarter of a million children and why Brown’s government apparently chose to abandon what had been such a key commitment is not clear. It is possible they simply took their eye off the ball or perhaps, having seen that further reductions were becoming progressively harder to make they simply and quietly shunted it to one side and got on with trying to do other things.

    Claiming that it is Labour’s actions that have forced the conservatives to address poverty is to put the cart before the horse. Society had already come round to the idea that poverty levels were already to high, indeed this can be seen as one reason that Labour were elected in the first place. The change in the Conservative party has more to do with a return to its traditional approach of paternalist ‘One Nation’ conservatism and a rejection of the excesses of Thatcherism.

    These last Labour governments can, however, make no such claims about inequality. Inequality has increased under all of them and it is a failure to recognise that there has been a growing grassroots objection to the level of inequality in our society and to its increase that has put Labour in opposition.

    Labour politicians must accept that child poverty, as measured in the way that they themselves chose went up under that last government, they cannot keep quibbling about what that phrase means exactly, they must accept the fact for what it is and move on.

    Unless and until Labour recognises its own failings and owns up to them in a way that the public will trust then it is not likely to regain their confidence. The next Labour leader will not be able to ask the electorate to look at the achievements of 1997 to 2001 and pretend that 2005 to 2010 did not happen, they will have to make the case for a credible alternative to the policies of the current government, policies that are already working to reduce inequality by taking people out of income tax and policies that will have done more over the next four and a half years. In this spirit the shapers of Labour’s future policy would do well to read the rest of Waldfogel’s book, in particular her recommendations for future reforms.

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