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We Have Lost Sight of What It Means to Understand and Fight Child Poverty

24/06/2015 15:28 BST | Updated 24/06/2016 10:59 BST

Meet two families. In the first family, life is utterly miserable for the four children, largely because one of their parents has a drug problem. Much of the money they receive in support through the welfare system is consumed by that addiction. Both adults are unemployed. The children are in a school that 'requires improvement'. Personal debt levels are building at home. In the second family the father has just found a job - the first he's had in several years - and his partner is planning to return to work when their youngest child starts school. Life is tough at the moment but they have a plan and are on the way to a better future, free from low income. Which family are you most worried about? Which do you consider poor?

Both families and the children within them are failed by the current child poverty set up and the truth is, politicians of both Left and Right know it. The main measure of child poverty takes no account of the factors causing disadvantage in a household - simply the income levels. The first family could be above the 'poverty line' and the second below it. We have lost sight of what it means to understand and fight child poverty.

When Gordon Brown passed the Child Poverty Act ten weeks before the 2010 general election the MPs walking through the voting lobby saw it for the bear trap it was designed to be. The new Government would be between a rock and a hard place: repeal or amend the Act and face a political battering for rowing back on a seemingly vital moral commitment; pretend to play along with the Act and face legal challenge when the targets are not met (as everyone knew they wouldn't be). All the more appetising for Brown of course, because he knew it would be the Tories he sent squirming.

But it is high time for a revolution in the way we fight child poverty. This is about principle not party politics or moving goalposts. The case for change has been made by many people for many years. As long ago as 2007 my think tank, the Centre for Social Justice, called for overhaul in our nation's poverty fighting approach. We saw that damage caused as Labour adopted a welfare-obsessed strategy: by redistributing income from the top to the bottom, through tax credits and other benefits, the 'poor' could seemingly be lifted above a 'poverty line' by becoming a few pounds a week better off. It was a cynical approach which did very little to change lives or help people overcome the reasons they were stuck in low income. Think about whether more money would help the children in the first family, for instance. In fact ask a family what it feels like to go to bed poor on a Tuesday and wake up fine on a Wednesday because some Whitehall spreadsheet declared them so and they'll be utterly baffled. As well as figures like Iain Duncan Smith and David Cameron, Nick Clegg, Frank Field and Alan Milburn have all torn into this narrow approach. But sadly Brown's 2010 Act merely enshrined that approach into law and, as Frank Field said, has become a 'straightjacket' on successive governments who seek a more sophisticated approach.

We know what is required, and we need it fast. In a report published today the CSJ is calling on the Government to remove itself from legally binding child poverty income targets. Instead we urge a new annual reporting system focused on how ministers are tackling the root causes of poverty, such as: family breakdown and trauma, educational failure, worklessness and low pay, severe personal debt levels, and addiction. These life chances indicators would force policy-makers to invest to build the strong foundations children and families need to thrive. They would ensure meaningful progress was made in the poorest communities - not just a few more pounds pumped in. Retaining the current income inequality measure would be important, so we can still understand how many people are struggling financially in any given year, but we need to adopt this broader approach.

When we seek to fight poverty overseas we invest in the foundations people need, be it access to education, healthcare, jobs, transport or loans to start businesses. In other words we seek to help people onto a ladder out of poverty and we demand to know what return our investment provides. For some odd reason in the UK we have taken the opposite approach. By chasing the symptoms not the causes of poverty the quick fix welfare cheque has come to entrench dependency and ignore the reasons why people need help in the first place. By amending the unhelpful and unambitious 2010 Child Poverty Act we can begin to end this failure. We could offer the poorest children we all care about the opportunities and support they deserve. There's no time to waste.

Christian Guy is the Director of the Centre for Social Justice