The child poverty crisis needs pushing up the agenda in Britain’s ‘Brexit’ election

None of the main party manifestos will end child poverty


Both the main parties have learnt lessons from the 2017 election. The Conservatives have learnt not to scare the horses with big new policies. Their 2019 manifesto is very much a ‘safety-first’ document. Labour learnt that they have a problem with pensioners – 70-year olds are twice as likely to vote Tory as Labour – so have made them a big priority in their 2019 manifesto pledges.

The problem with both of these approaches is that neither faces up to an even bigger challenge facing the country – the huge living standards squeeze for low- and middle-income families, and resulting rise in child poverty.

The backdrop to the 2019 manifestos is the £34 billion reduction in social security support since 2010, the vast majority of which has fallen on working-age families. The legacy of these cuts is set to continue into the next parliament. A quarter of the benefit cuts announced in 2015 by then Chancellor George Osborne are still to be rolled out – notably the two-child limit on benefit support. It is this legacy that is driving our projection for relative child poverty rates to rise to 34 per cent. That would be the highest level of child poverty since records began in 1961.

So how have the parties’ responded to this? The Conservatives have chosen not to, beyond a reference to reducing child poverty. Now this is quite a change from their 2015 manifesto offering of £12 billion of further cuts. But it still means no substantive action to tackle rising poverty.

In contrast, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have an array of social security commitments, each spending around £9 billion on increasing benefits and a further £8 billion on in-kind support like childcare and school meals by the end of the forthcoming parliament. Their packages include reversing some elements of the post-2010 benefit cuts, in particular by scrapping the two-child limit on benefits that is the single biggest driver of rising child poverty. As a result, we forecast that under them the number of children living in poverty will be at least 500,000 lower in the next parliament, compared to Conservative plans.

This is a welcome shift. But while the Labour and Lib Dems proposals would halt the rise in child poverty, neither are likely to lead to a substantial reduction. That’s because none of the main parties are sufficiently focused on the big picture problem of squeezed living standards for working-age families.

This is particularly true of Labour, whose plan also includes a halt to State Pension age increases, and £12 billion a year over the next parliament compensating one group of women for the speeding up of State Pension age rises in the past. This means that Labour plans to spend more on social security for women born between 1950 and 1960 (the so-called WASPI women) than they do on the entire working-age population. Meanwhile – while the party offers welcome support to private renters, large families and disabled people – the fact that the effects of the benefits freeze would endure leaves groups like working single parents worse off on average than they would have been under the pre-2015 benefit system.

So while it is welcome that no party is talking about working-age benefit cuts any more, the parties’ manifestos represent a missed opportunity to reduce child poverty, or prevent it from rising to a record high in the case of the Conservatives.

The good news, however, is that things can change, and indeed have changed. Back in the late 1980s, two-in-five pensioners lived in poverty – a disgraceful situation that successive governments have worked hard to reduce. Today, pensioner poverty is a near a record low. And the previous Labour administration was able to lift a million children out of poverty in the 2000s, before the financial crisis hit.

So we can reduce child poverty. But to do this we need to focus on the challenges our country faces. That means identifying the poverty risks around health, including mental health. It means understanding that while we’ve done a lot to tackle the scourge of household worklessness, low pay and insecurity remain ever-present in the labour market. And it means reforming our social security safety net so that it supports those most in need, such as low-income families, not just those most likely to vote for you in a few weeks’ time.

Originally published by INews