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Ending Child Poverty or Re-defining It?

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We've come a long way on child poverty since Tony Blair announced in 1999 the historic mission to eradicated child poverty in a generation. Relative child poverty has been reduced by 1.1 million children, and absolute child poverty by two million children.

Progress continued all the way to 2010, despite the economic crisis, because of a decision to prioritise protection of the poorest children and families through extra investment in financial support for children to buffer them against the economic storm.

Despite this progress, Child Poverty Action Group and our partner organisations in the End Child Poverty Coalition spent the decade since 1999 arguing to the last government and the opposition parties that we needed a more broad based approach that balanced immediate redistributive policies with policies whose impact would show longer term. Yes, income redistribution is a central pillar, but the End Child Poverty's shared policy also asked government to cover matters like the need to build more affordable housing, to improve substandard housing, extend high quality affordable childcare, close the gap in educational outcomes, and improve pay and job security. We also wanted a more comprehensive approach to measuring child poverty.

A major victory for campaigners was the Child Poverty Act 2010. We won a set of four statutory targets for reducing child poverty that focus not just on relative low income, but also absolute low income, persistent low income and material deprivation. We believed it particularly important that the material deprivation measure was included so that the targets do not just look at income, but also covers matters in the sub-indicators for this measure such as whether a family can afford a healthy diet, a warm home and to stay out of debt.

But perhaps the real victory of the Act was the requirement for the government to publish a three-yearly child poverty strategy to drive progress - the engine of progress, as opposed to the targets, which are the finishing line. In making the strategies the government is required to consider actions across a broad set of key policy areas, including housing, education, childcare, parenting skills, parental employment, family income, physical and mental health. There is also an independent expert commission to hold them to account.

There has been a great deal of misleading commentary about the Child Poverty Act framework in the last few months. First of all, many make the mistake of thinking there is only one target and the targets are only about income, but as anyone can read in sections one to seven of the Act, this is completely untrue. Many also seem unaware of the legal requirements on government to consider action across the broad range of policy areas related to children's wellbeing and outcomes, so we also point people towards the all-important section nine of the Act.

Just last week, the think tank Policy Exchange called for the Act to be scrapped, which would mean losing legal requirements on government to take action in areas like education, housing, debt, childcare, health, employment and parenting skills. They also called for the measures to be scrapped, and a new one put in place, which they themselves describe as 'arbitrary' and under which you could have the bizarre situation of a family living in relative poverty, stuck in damp substandard housing and caught deep in debt who are no longer officially classified as poor because they fail the convoluted tick-box exercise at the heart of the measure. We are better off sticking with the current targets which are widely respected by academic experts than their arbitrary proposal which incidentally also makes the mistake of including characteristics which could also be shared by people who are not poor at all - such as drug and alcohol abuse.

The government has also just finished consulting on new ways to measure child poverty, and there are serious concerns, as expressed last week by leading academic experts, that their proposals are confused and would dilute the monitoring of family income at a time when its policies will be reducing the incomes of families. Given the dire warning by the Institute for Fiscal Studies that with the austerity burden falling so heavily on the poorest families both relative and absolute child poverty will surge upwards, some believe the government is seeking to let itself off the hook by moving the goal posts. We hope this is not true - it would certainly represent a major u-turn for the coalition parties and for the prime minster, David Cameron, who has previously committed to the importance of income measurement at the heart of understanding poverty; as has the secretary of state, Iain Duncan Smith.

Child Poverty Action Group would welcome any additional information that the government decides to publish on the risk factors for experiencing child poverty, the experience of being poor, and the outcomes for children who grow up in poverty (although it is important that these concepts are not confused). But a new measure must not obscure the fact that child poverty is rising, and we urgently need a strategy to turn this around. The existing Child Poverty Act targets on income and material deprivation are those that most relate to the common understanding of child poverty - the experience of lacking the resources for a secure and healthy childhood and social participation in the society you are a part of. It is these measures that we will continue to use to hold the government to account on the vital task of ending poverty for British children.

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