Opinion: On child poverty targets, on which I agree with David Laws

“A fair, free and open society, in which… no one shall be enslaved by poverty.”

The fundamental basis of our party’s constitution – its very soul – is the elimination of poverty. We may disagree amongst us on how best to achieve this ambitious goal, but there’s little dissent on having it as a goal, particularly when it comes to the blight of children growing up in poverty.

As Caron made clear, we find ourselves in government with a party that doesn’t share many of our values – rarely is this crystallised as starkly as this week’s battle over child poverty targets.

It appears that some Conservatives – in particular, the Chancellor – refuse to accept the need for clear targets on reducing child poverty. The result? A new strategy to reduce child poverty that contains to targets on reducing child poverty. Really.

I agree with David Laws. Really I do. The Guardian quotes David thus: ‘as chairman of the Lib Dems’ election 2015 manifesto group he wanted to see these targets appear in the party’s manifesto. Getting agreement on the issue ought to be a priority in the next parliament because “this debate is too important to be vetoed by one political party in British politics.”

Too right.

There is a more nuanced debate to be had on how we measure child poverty, and poverty for all – not least because how we measure it frames how we tackle it. This debate should be informed by the risks associated with changing an internationally-recognised, well-understood single definition (earning below 60% of the median) – risks that the Royal Statistical Society say imperil public trust and trans-national comparison. While these risks are real and should be taken seriously, I understand that the new approach won’t reject household income and replace it with a broader definition, as was originally assumed. Rather, the newer indicators of poverty will be measured and published alongside the 60%-of-median figure – they’ll be additional, rather than instead of, the trusted statistic. Some other countries take a dashboard approach to poverty indicators, which take account of social circumstances and public spending – the new strategy attempts to replicate this.

To me the real risk in the proposed approach of defining child poverty is the conflation of causes and consequences of poverty. We need to debate, as a party, whether we consider social phenomena like broken families, educational underachievement and substance abuse to be drivers of, or a result of, poverty. Of course the relationship is complicated – there’s likely to be a cyclical link between these factors. But whether we see these as risk factors or markers of poverty has a real impact on how we approach so much public policy – decisions on things as disparate as welfare spending, alcohol pricing and housing depend on how we frame the problem of poverty, how much we hold individuals absolutely responsible for their circumstances.

So there are difficult, ethically loaded decisions to be made on how we measure other factors that contribute to poverty. The decision to have a target at all is not – that, is far more an issue of pure political expediency. The Tory cards are on the table, they don’t want to have targets on child poverty they can be held accountable for. We do, we should, and we will.

* Prateek Buch is Director of the Social Liberal Forum and serves on the Liberal Democrat Federal Policy Committee

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14 Comments

  • “We need to debate, as a party, whether we consider social phenomena like broken families, educational underachievement and substance abuse to be drivers of, or a result of, poverty.”

    If, as I expect you to say, they are the result, rather than the cause of poverty, or at least the starting point in the circular process, what *are* the causes of poverty then?

  • Given your party has voted for huge reductions in welfare and state support for lower earners and the unemployed perhaps you should look at changing these policies to address current poverty before a dry debate about the causes?

  • RC ,
    You ask. “what *are* the causes of poverty then?”
    One answer might be that the richest 85 people in the world own more than half the world’s resources.
    Another answer might be that 99% create the wealth but only 1% benefit.

    Those are slogans that I have seen but I have no way of knowing if they are strictly accurate. It matters not. What matters is doing something about child poverty. I think that is what he has in mind when Prateek ends his piece —
    “So there are difficult, ethically loaded decisions to be made on how we measure other factors that contribute to poverty. The decision to have a target at all is not – that, is far more an issue of pure political expediency. The Tory cards are on the table, they don’t want to have targets on child poverty they can be held accountable for. We do, we should, and we will.”

  • “One answer might be that the richest 85 people in the world own more than half the world’s resources.”

    No, that’s a measure of inequality, not an explanation for child poverty.

    “What matters is doing something about child poverty.”

    Unless you can understand what actually causes it, any efforts are likely to be doomed to failure.

  • RC, Would you accept that some medical conditions are idiopathic ? Would you accept that this does not prevent the medical professions providing both treatment and cure?

    I am sure that you would not suggest that the NHS only treats those conditions for which it can categorically state the cause. Why take a different approach to poverty?

    We may not know all the causes of poverty. But we know enough to do something about it. We certainly know about reducing poverty and in some cases about preventing poverty.
    In the UK before Thatcher we used to be quite successful at reducing poverty by reducing inequality. In some countries around the world they are still quite good at reducing poverty by reducing the gap between the rich and the poor.
    Setting targets to reduce child poverty and achieving those targets is a proven method of reducing poverty. Why not get on with it?

  • @g
    “Given your party has voted for huge reductions in welfare and state support for lower earners”

    No it hasn’t.

  • “In some countries around the world they are still quite good at reducing poverty by reducing the gap between the rich and the poor.”

    That is mainly because they structure their whole societies differently, rather than simply applying the sticking plaster of benefits.

    I’m not saying we shouldn’t do the same. It just requires some very careful and clear thought beforehand, don’t you think?

    To take just one example, making public transport much better and cheaper would help the less well off disproportionately, but would require higher taxes to fund it. Creating the legitimacy for higher taxes (for all, not just the 1%) is a job that has yet to be tackled.

  • Great article Prateek, spot-on.

    I do have some issues with relative poverty measures, as reflecting income distribution, it is like the proverbial cat chasing its tail – impossible to catch up with. However, an income distribution which resulted in no child falling below 60% of the median household income would itself be a wonderful outcome.

  • @ Prateek Buch

    “Whether financial, educational, health-related etc, being deprived of one or more of these capabilities makes us unfree, ie poor”

    You forgot “cultural” in your list. Deprivation is linked very closely to cultural deprivation, in particular cultural attitudes towards learning. You only have to see the difference between the educational performance of children from, say, an Indian background versus those from a white working class background, for example.

  • A Social Liberal 2nd Mar '14 - 1:57pm

    RC said

    “You forgot “cultural” in your list. Deprivation is linked very closely to cultural deprivation, in particular cultural attitudes towards learning. You only have to see the difference between the educational performance of children from, say, an Indian background versus those from a white working class background, for example.”

    I couldn’t disagree with you more – my best friend (whose father was a labourer) became an accountant, my cousin got a masters in the sciences.

    There is a difference between a cultural attitude to education and not being bothered because there just aren’t any jobs out there – you might well see a sea change in attitudes when 900,000 young men and women have something other than the dole to ‘look forward’ to

  • RC,
    There is some measure of agreement between us. I am interested in your point on transport. I live in a London Borough and so from my 60th birthday I have travelled free on trains, buses and tubes. We have won the argument in London for free travel for older citizens. We have won that point with all parties. In London it would only be a very foolish politician who would ever suggest messing with the pensioner!s bus pass.

  • Helen Dudden 3rd Mar '14 - 10:23am

    You did vote with your coalition colleagues on the bedroom tax. Where I live in Bath, they also voted to cut the services to vulnerable children. Adding too, the services to pensioners who live in sheltered housing.

    I was a member for over 21 years of your Party, but finding the support growing for things like the “food banks” to support the cuts to benefits.

    This is not a political statement, but I also, rang the office of Nick Clegg on the subject of child access, and the “All Party Group” on the subject of problems with the Brussels 11a and the Hague Convention. Not one of your MP’s is a member of the group.

    This is how you will have lost support from those who have supported you for years, and worked at election times.

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