The last Labour government lifted nearly one million children out of poverty through an austute mix of income support and vital services, says a new report.
Lindsay Judge is Senior Policy and Research Officer at the Child Poverty Action Group.
Over recent weeks, the impressive reductions in child poverty that we have observed in the UK over the last decade have been depicted by some as the product of a one-dimensional strategy. Labour managed to reduce child poverty by over 900,000 children, it is argued, simply by pumping money into the social security budget and increasing benefits to unsustainable levels.
As our new report being published today shows, this is a misrepresentation of past strategy. The last decade was indeed marked by efforts to support the incomes of those at the bottom of the distribution, but this was complemented by large investments in public services. Contributors to the report highlight the critical role played by the Sure Start programme, the Decent Homes initiative, the National Childcare Strategy and educational investments in improving the lives of poorer children over the last decade.
Richard Titmuss famously claimed that “services for the poor will always be poor services”, but the progressive universalist approach of the Labour years appears to have neatly side-stepped this trap. As Naomi Eisenstadt, the first Director of Sure Start, points out, the programme was broadly conceived and was never intended to solely target the most disadvantaged children.
In fact, its reach was both widened and deepened over time: widened because government realised that many children in need of its services did not live in low-income families, and deepened when it became clear that the programme should do more to reach out to children who were excluded by poverty.
• How Labour saved 2 million children from poverty 12 June 2012
• Child poverty: Absolute and relative 30 May 2012
The report captures other useful lessons with respect to service design. It should come as no surprise that the most effective services are those that address the real priorities of low-income families, rather than the concerns projected onto them by policy makers.
Ann Power documents the way that community regeneration programmes over the last decade have done just this: through repairing buildings, for example, rather than knocking them down; and by employing local people as community wardens, park keepers, play assistants and community police officers.
Yet no matter how well-designed and delivered services are, our report shows that they cannot substitute for an adequate family income. Donald Hirsch’s chapter on education points out that analysis of cohort studies in the UK identifies poverty as an independent factor affecting educational outcomes.
Put simply, children do not get the most out of schools when their parents cannot afford uniforms, school trips or a computer at home. Likewise, Eva Lloyd’s analysis of early years provision suggests that the benefits of the future planned expansions of services may be undermined by falling family incomes.
Political debate in the UK increasingly pits services against income support, suggesting that it is better services that will end child poverty rather than increases to family incomes. The experts in our report disagree: an adequate income remains a necessary, if not sufficient condition for eliminating child poverty. Poor children need services that are broadly targeted, high quality and responsive to their concerns for sure, but they can only derive full benefit from such provision if their family incomes are adequate too.