Halfway through his first term, Tony Blair suddenly announced a
20-year mission to eradicate child poverty. It was March 1999 and
followed Labour’s self-imposed two-year public spending
freeze and cuts to lone parent benefits that split the party almost
before it had begun to govern. The number of children living in
income-poor families had barely fallen from its 1997 peak. It
hardly seemed the time for rhetorical gestures, but there it was:
“Our historic aim is that ours is the first generation to end
child poverty for ever.”
Right on cue the introduction of the national minimum wage the
following month and working families tax credit in October that
year did begin to make a difference. The government set public
service agreement targets that committed it to cutting the figure
of 4.4m children in poverty by a quarter by 2005, a half by 2010
and abolishing it altogether by 2020. Most pundits are agreed that
this year’s first target will be met, bringing the mass of
children in income-poor households down to 3.3m, though official
confirmation will have to wait until the Households Below Average
Income (HBAI) statistics are published next year.
The same pundits, however, also tend to agree that meeting the next
set of targets will be much tougher. While the better-off have paid
more taxes to raise the living standards of the poor, though
without any corresponding reduction in income inequalities, it has
been a case of redistribution by stealth. All the indications are
that the government will have to make a much more convincing public
case for the further redistribution that will be necessary to reach
the 2010 target.
“Most of the gains have depended on those who can start work
– two-thirds of the reduction in poverty can be put down to
people getting jobs,” says Jonathan Bradshaw, professor of
social policy at the University of York. “Even if the labour
market stays bright, there aren’t many more gains to be made
through it. Most of those it is easy to get into employment are in
Chancellor Gordon Brown’s redistributive energies have gone
largely into subsidising employment, much of it low paid. The most
recent HBAI figures, for 2002-3, showed that about half of all
children in poverty were poor even though at least one parent in
each family was in work and receiving tax credits. The Labour years
had brought a 6 per cent reduction in poverty figures for families
with a lone parent who was in work and a 22 per cent reduction for
two-parent families where one of the parents was employed. If this
situation has improved since, much of it is due to nearly £4bn
of Treasury investment in families with children – child tax
credit was hiked by £2.8bn in April 2003 and a further
£850m a year later.
Harder still will be shifting more workless families above the
poverty line. “An anti-poverty strategy based on employment
is relatively cheap, but lifting people out of poverty who are out
of work is tougher and much more expensive,” Bradshaw
Poverty among children in households with workless couples
increased by 4 per cent in the first five years of Labour. While
child benefits have risen in line with overall earnings, adult
rates of income support have gone up more slowly in line with
inflation. As poverty is measured relative to general earnings,
adults dependent on benefits tend to pull families below the
The poverty threshold for a couple with two children – set at
60 per cent of median income – is £336 a week. If they
are out of work, this couple will receive £161, leaving them
£175 adrift of the poverty line.(
Kate Green, director of the Child Poverty Action Group, says if the
government is to meet its future targets it will have to raise
income support in line with earnings and ensure that lone parents
receive any maintenance entitlements through the Child Support
“You can’t see benefits for children in isolation from
those for adults,” she says. “The chancellor announced
a 55p increase in income support in the pre-budget report, but the
value of income support needs to rise more rapidly if families are
to continue to be lifted out of poverty. Otherwise adults end up
sacrificing the necessities of life in order to provide for their
Lone parents exemplify the risks of emphasising employment rather
than benefits as the cure for poverty. After eight years Labour has
increased the proportion in work to about 55 per cent, up 10 per
cent thanks to a buoyant economy and the New Deal for Lone Parents.
But the 2010 poverty target depends on getting seven out of 10 into
work – “most commentators don’t think
they’ve got a cat in hell’s chance,” says
Bradshaw – when many live in deprived areas with few jobs,
where such jobs that exist are part-time and low paid, and where
lone parents may have little education and few marketable skills.
Six out of 10 in work may be more realistic.
So has the work-based approach to poverty run its course? Green is
more optimistic, but accepts the need for a step change in policy.
She says: “We’re now dealing with people much further
below the poverty line, so it’s going to be that much harder
to get them above it than it was for those just below the line in
the first five years.”
More readily available skills training to meet the ever growing
demands of the knowledge economy is one answer; more accessible,
affordable child care another, brought a step closer by the
chancellor’s new 10-year child care strategy. Low income
families in work qualify for a child care tax credit that covers 70
per cent of costs, increasing to 80 per cent next year. There are
331,000 recipients, two-thirds of whom are lone parents. But a
report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests that the
child care tax credit has had “almost no direct impact”
on child poverty.(
Like child tax credit, child care tax credit reaches well up the
income scale. Most recipients, says the institute, are middle
income families rather than the poorest.
Former community worker Bob Holman, who has written extensively on
poverty, says the bill for 30 per cent of child care costs is still
prohibitive for people paid a pittance in dead-end jobs.
“Getting people back into work doesn’t necessarily take
them out of poverty,” Holman points out. “Women pay
very high child care costs. Even if they get tax credits, once you
take food and travel into account, they may be no better
“First, the government needs to tackle the whole issue of
child benefits – the best way of relieving poverty is to
provide universal benefits, which is what child benefit is. It is
simple, not means-tested and reaches
99.9 per cent of eligible people. Tax credits are means-tested, not
easy to apply for and not always well administered.
“Second, the minimum wage needs to be put at a reasonable
level, and set according to the cost of a decent
Green, however, says that making child tax credit available to
middle and even some higher income earners gives it the cachet of a
universal benefit. Though the government has yet to publish the
figures, she believes take-up is high. But in its new manifesto,
Ten Steps to a Society Free of Child Poverty, the CPAG
calls for the child benefit component to be maximised, while urging
the introduction of free, good quality universal child
Whereas some say the pressure on lone parents to use child care and
go to work has devalued parenthood, others argue that children in
workless families should be able to take up child care places.
Children dragged down by the persistent poverty that often
accompanies long-term unemployment may gain most from the social
and educational advantages of good quality child care.
Research published by the Department for Education and Skills has
shown that integrated pre-school education has lasting benefits for
deprived children’s social and cognitive development. It
could help break the cycle of poverty at a time when social
mobility between classes is now less than at any time in the past
The chancellor’s billions are also making little impact on
several groups of particularly vulnerable children, such as those
with disabilities or from ethnic minorities (see panel, facing
page). “There could be as many as a million children here who
are the most prone to severe and persistent poverty,” says
Neera Sharma, principal policy and practice officer at
Barnardo’s. “The government needs to be braver about
broadcasting the benefits of redistribution. Poverty has such a
huge cost – excluded children grow up poor with low
expectations and little education, ending up on
A Labour former chancellor allegedly threatened to “squeeze
the rich until the pips squeak”. Some time between now and
2020, another chancellor may have to take him at his word.
J Bradshaw, , address to JRF centenary conference, December
Institute for Fiscal Studies, , 2005
Child poverty – the facts
The cost of bringing up a child averages £50,000 (1997
In 2002 the estimated cost of a nursery place for a child younger
than two was £6,650 a year.
In 2002 about one-fifth of eligible lone parents took up their
entitlement to have 70 per cent of their child care costs paid for
In 2001-2 30 per cent of children were living in poverty compared
with 14 per cent in 1979.
Child poverty peaked in
1996-7 when 34 per cent were income deprived.
In 2001-2 54 per cent of children in lone parent households and 22
per cent in two-parent households were in poverty.
Schools in the poorest areas have 10 to 25 per cent of children
obtaining five GCSEs compared with a national average of nearly 50
Nearly 90 per cent of “failing” schools are located in
Poverty – Risk Factors
Percentage of children in different kinds of household who are
Lone parent, not working: 76 per cent.
Couple, neither working: 80 per cent.
Family with four or more children: 48 per cent.
Family with one or more disabled adults: 39 per cent.
Family with one or more disabled children: 31 per
Asian or Asian British family: 55 per cent.
Black or black British family: 46 per cent.
Children in all households: 28 per cent
Poverty – the Final
Ethnic Minority Children:
Percentage of children living in poverty:
22 per cent of children in Indian families.
39 per cent of children in black Caribbean families.
53 per cent of children in black non-Caribbean
75 per cent of children in Pakistani and Bangladeshi
35 per cent in Chinese or other ethnic group families.
26 per cent of children in white families.
55 per cent of the
families of Britain’s 320,000 disabled children experience
poverty at some point.
3 per cent of mothers with a disabled child work full time compared
with 22 per cent of mothers with non-disabled
There is little specialist child care for disabled children, though
the new national child care strategy may improve
On average it costs three times as much to raise a child with a
severe impairment as a non-disabled child, a differential not
covered by benefits.
70 per cent of disabled adults are dependent on
The number of homeless families has risen 123 per cent to 100,813
since 1997 – 18 per cent live in bed and breakfasts, hostels
The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has pledged to halve the
number of people in temporary accommodation by 2010.
750,000 families with children live in poor housing.
More than 300,000 families with children live in overcrowded
30 per cent live below the poverty line.
85 per cent experience unreasonable hunger.
95 per cent cannot afford to buy clothes or shoes.
80 per cent are unable to maintain good health.
Proportion of children in
The measurement of poverty is controversial itself. The standard
definition, used here, is children living in households with less
than 60 per cent of median income after housing costs. The 2005
target will be assessed by this measure.
But the 2010 target will have a new threefold measure, comprising
absolute low income (60 per cent of the 1998-9 median uprated for
inflation); relative low income (less than 60 per cent of the
contemporary median before housing costs); and material deprivation
(less than 70 per cent of the contemporary median before housing
costs and lacking material necessities).
The relative low income measure, which comes closest to the current
one, relies on income before rather than after housing costs. On
the revised measure, the official statistics for 2002-3 show 21 per
cent of children in poverty (before housing costs) rather than the
commonly accepted figure of 28 per cent (after housing costs)
– see graph.
The government denies this is a ploy to make the 2010 target easier
because it must meet all three measures. The after housing costs
figure will continue to be published, so cheating will be