In 1999, Tony Blair promised to abolish child poverty by 2020. In that year, 3.3 million children were in poverty on the government’s preferred measure. By 2010, this was down by a million, after the longest sustained fall in child poverty ever recorded. Today’s poverty figures show the reversal of that trend accelerating. By 2017/18, child poverty was back to 3 million, the same level as at the turn of the century. Forecasts show that by 2021, on present policies, it will reach record levels.
There are many ways of measuring child poverty, but now on all of them, the trend is up. Anti-poverty campaigners like to use a measure that looks at income net of what households spend on housing; this “after housing cost” measure, which did not rise this year as housing costs eased, is nevertheless half a million above 2010. Another measure, which the Government has been quoting recently, is “absolute” poverty – this is income below 60% of median in a given year (currently set at 2010) rather than in the current year, so it is not “relative” to contemporary income. Until today, it was possible to say that this had fallen (just) since 2010, but it too has just increased sharply, and is 200,000 above the 2010 level (or 100,000 above after housing costs).
These trends clearly reflect the cuts in family benefits and tax credits, announced in 2015 and now starting to feed into the figures. It is, of course, not surprising that the poorest families are getting poorer given that the freezing of their benefits mean that their value erodes steadily with inflation. There are now no remaining fig leaves to imagine that things have improved rather than deteriorated during the present decade. There is also a new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Amber Rudd, who seems to care about these things. We can only hope this signals a change in direction. But with the swirling instability in our government, who knows who’ll be the minister next week, let alone next year.