The government’s redefinition will magically reduce child poverty

Almost two out of three in Britain's poor live in working households - thanks to the changes they'll be left out of poverty statistics


During the coalition years, ministers tried in vain to change the ground rules for measuring poverty. Now, with a working majority, the new Conservative government is seizing its chance.

The Child Poverty Act, passed with all-party support in the dying days of the Brown government, is to be repealed, its targets dropped and the official measure of poverty redefined.

The Act’s targets may have been ambitious, but it was still a significant milestone in the history of post-war policy on poverty. It signalled an apparent political consensus on the poverty question – that poverty was relative and was much too high.

It was also an unambiguous statement of the social obligation to tackle poverty.

That consensus has long been over. Within weeks of coming to office in 2010, coalition ministers started to distance themselves from the principles defined in the Act.

Now the legally enshrined social commitment is to be cast aside, with profound consequences for official policy on poverty and the life chances of the poor.

Conservative ministers have long railed against the relative measure central to the Act – the 60 per cent of the median target. This measure is not perfect, but because of this, it is backed up by three other measures enshrined in the Act.

It also the measure used by nearly all rich nations, as well as international bodies like UNICEF, the EU and the OECD.

In place of the targets in the Act (though the official figures –  Households Below Average Incomes – are at least for now, still to be published, even if they weren’t independent researchers would replicate them) the government is to adopt new measures based around worklessness.

These are to include educational attainment for disadvantaged compared with all children and the proportion of children in workless households. Yet close to two out of three of Britain’s poor live in working households. If this group was simply redefined away, the poverty count would fall sharply.

It is, of course, right to emphasise the importance of life chances and social mobility, which are appallingly low in the UK, but the government’s wider economic and social policies will simply tighten the cap preventing families from escaping poverty.

Central to the government’s aim is to drop income from poverty measurement.

Despite the fact that poverty is driven by a lack of material resources, and the evidence that even small boosts to low incomes make a big difference, ministers like to claim that giving the poor more money is not the way to fight poverty, an approach the work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith has constantly dismissed as ‘poverty plus a pound’.

The government is set, instead, on redefining the causes of poverty away from broadly societal and economic explanations – such as the spread of  low wages and job insecurity to rising living costs, especially rents  – to individual ones, such as family breakdown, bad parenting and drug addiction.

This matches the repeated claims that poverty is down to the individual – a ‘lifestyle choice`. All these circumstances can contribute to poverty – though they occur in rich as well as poor families – but account for only a tiny fraction of those in poverty.

Britain has a poor record on poverty, historically and globally. All experts predict that with today’s increasingly fragile labour market and further rounds of benefit cuts to come, poverty levels are set to rise until 2020.

Meanwhile the government is creating a political culture that is more anti-poor than anti-poverty. By changing the ground rules, the government may hope that the real record on poverty can be hidden, and accountability passed from state to the poor themselves.

Just as Mrs Thatcher instructed ministers and civil servants, in the 1980s, to drop the ‘poverty` word, the new plan seems to be simply to write large numbers of the poor out of the political script.

‘How many Tories does it take to change a light bulb?` ‘None – they just redefine the dark`.

Stewart Lansley is a visiting fellow at the University of Bristol and the author ( with Joanna Mack ) of Breadline Britain: The Rise of Mass Poverty, Oneworld, 2015.

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9 Responses to “The government’s redefinition will magically reduce child poverty”

  1. stevep

    What most of Britain fails to realise, thanks to relentless SunMail propaganda, the apparent reticence of the other media to challenge it and the failure of the left, is that the current Conservative government is dangerously right-wing. Far more to the radical right than we`ve seen since pre WW2.
    They see their slender majority as a mandate to destroy the welfare state and reduce us all, once more, to a nation of beggars and grovellers, scratching around for the chance of a few crumbs from the rich man`s table. Falling into penury if we become ill or incapacitated.
    Prior to the welfare state and secure employment, children from poor families routinely went to school hungry and without shoes.
    Potential workers used to queue up outside factory gates for the chance of a few hours menial work so they could feed their kids. They often went hungry so their kids could eat.
    Fights frequently broke out amongst those queuing for work as they strived to outbid one another as the hirer selected them.
    I have spoken to older people who remember that era well and wouldn’t want to go back to it.
    The Attlee Labour government of 1945-51 gave the citizens of Britain a measure of dignity and security by establishing the welfare state. That we are allowing the Tories to dismantle it is a measure of how much we have fallen in the last 35 years, socially and morally.
    If the Labour party is to reclaim it`s mantle as the party of the people then it must include an unwavering manifesto commitment to restoring any damage the Tories do to our welfare state and commit to spending on us all to keep us secure and healthy.
    It must be properly costed and paid for by a radical progressive taxation policy.

  2. Torybushhug

    You are drawing a false choice. The right wants to transform welfare back into the 1960’s dignified skeptical safety net model, not the pre war model.
    You are leaving aside the considerable toxic effects mass endemic welfare has wrought. As but one examaple, the reason obesity rates are much higher amongst the poor is because people became care free and irresponsible in a way thier grans would balk at. Why behave responsibly when the state is always there no matter what you do? If people are paid more by the state the more irresponsible they are, more people lose sight of why planning and responsibility ought to be central to thier lives. The left frames such people as victims as opposed to agents Capable of change.

  3. stevep

    The current Tory government seek to destroy the welfare state and reduce the working people of Britain to servants and slaves to the rich once more. If and when it happens you may see it more clearly than your vision allows now. You might wish you hadn`t.

  4. dnspncr

    The toxic effects mass endemic welfare has wrought? I’ve made the same point in another reply I posted you, but if you will keep repeating yourself.

    The illusion, the idea that unemployment benefit is used by the majority of claimants to fund a slumberous lifestyle, has allowed the government to make devastating cuts and receive little opposition. Every cherry-picked fraudster that is splashed across tabloid front pages has succeeded in creating a climate of mistrust; A climate in which any person dressed a certain way and passing through a chavy town centre during a weekday is viewed as being part of the legion of scroungers who are bleeding taxpayers dry… night workers, shift workers, home workers, part-timers, anyone having a day off, suffers of chronic illness, students, apprentices, they all help to reinforce the myth that benefit fraud is so great, so epidemic, that it is bringing the country to its knees.

    And now the brainwashed public have got what they have been told they wanted. Benefits are being cut. No more handouts for these layabout scumbags… Except it isn’t that simple is it; Hard working taxpayers whose wages do not cover the basic cost of living will also be effected. The current climate has allowed the government to end financial support for the severely disabled without creating too much fuss. And now we hear that the financial assistance given to cancer suffers will be slashed.

    It’s the weekend brushhug, all this negativity isn’t good for you, lighten up.

  5. stevep

    Well Said.

  6. Keith M

    Spot on Steven. Brace yourselves for a massive onslaught on the poor and generous handouts to the rich on Wednesday.

  7. Keith M


  8. Keith M

    They are under an illusion because they are drip fed this poison by the Murdoch daily mail gutter press.

  9. IreneGHyde

    Next few days start your new life…leftfootforward… < Find Here

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