Improving living standards by tackling the cost of living and raising household incomes will be a key battleground running up to the next General Election. Nowhere is that more important than for children living in poverty. Faced with a target legislated by the Labour government that will never be met, the coalition are locked in battle trying to change how we conceive and measure child poverty. Many on the left are suspicious of the approach. They shouldn't be.
First of all, it is clear that the current measure is inadequate. Some of the problems are statistical. By focussing on income inequality, poverty seemed to fall sharply during the recession, leaving little opportunity to identify actual changes in the living standards of the most deprived children during the most difficult times. There is also a broader issue; measuring income alone does not capture the full breadth of the problem. For instance, compared to the government's own material deprivation measure, we significantly underestimate problems of children living in London because of a failure to identify large variation in the cost of living. By assuming how much income a given household needs we get a poor understanding of problems in different sized households, often underestimating the problems of lone-parent families.
Overall, compared to this alternative measure of living standards, the core poverty measure ignores around 2.3million children, even though they are identified as lacking a number of items considered necessary for an acceptable standard of living. These children are missed not because their problems are any less significant, but because their parents do not fall below an arbitrary income level. The influences on living standards are too diverse to be extrapolated from income alone.
It is clear that things other than finances matter. Education, health, infant mortality rates and aspirations are all worse for children in worse-off families. Hiding these issues by legislating for income measures means that we are unable to target resources effectively on them. This is a problem when the government reacts to the headline measure of poverty. As recently as the 2010 spending review an extra £8billion was allocated to the child element of Child Tax Credit in order for the review to have "no measurable impact on child poverty over the next two years". It is therefore no surprise that most of the fall in child poverty over recent years has come from a lower risk of poverty among workless households and families with four or more children.
The key point is that, while income is undeniably important for the living standards that children experience, it is not an outcome in itself. As long as a headline income measure of child poverty holds this much power there is less incentive for government to focus on outcomes like early childhood development, narrowing the education gap and improving childhood health.
Critics of the government often characterise efforts to change the child poverty measure as cynical; an attempt to massage down the statistics or plaster over the effects of policy decisions. However this rush to criticise the motives of policymakers could mean missing a rare chance to make meaningful change.
Looking back on the child poverty goals and strategies set in the late-1990s perhaps the greatest failure was that it did not bring all parts of government, campaigning charities and the wider public together. This time, in this very different political and economic climate, it is essential that all interested parties seek consensus on how to address poverty and provide opportunity for the most disadvantaged children.
We don't just need to get past the narrow understanding of child poverty provided by the current Child Poverty Act. We need to seize this opportunity to better hold the government to account with an effective measure of children's living standards and the factors that will hold them back in the future.
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