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Money Matters - Theresa May Must Take Rising Child Poverty Seriously To Tackle Social Justice

15/03/2017 10:52 GMT | Updated 15/03/2017 10:53 GMT
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Poverty will increase most for children by the end of this parliament. That's a big problem for a prime minister who entered Downing Street promising to help 'just managing' families. Child poverty statistics out later this week are unlikely to make the picture any rosier. And with children in single parent families facing twice the rate of poverty as those in other families, they're particularly at risk.

The prime minister's promised social justice strategy is expected to be this government's big set piece on addressing living standards. After a tortuous wait - and renaming - a green paper consultation is now imminent. What will it hold for those struggling to get by?

If the recent past (including the previous strategy) is anything to go by, families will be at the heart of the new policy. But while rumours suggest the current DWP team has at least moved away from some of the more toxic rhetoric around 'family breakdown', talk of "rebooting" the Troubled Families Programme suggests a bigger step-change is needed. If the new strategy is to be genuinely radical, it must distance itself from past mistakes which led to a programme based on the misguided notion that 'problem families' are to blame for a raft of disadvantage.

Into work - at what cost?

Moreover, it must move beyond current welfare policy and its preoccupation of getting people into work. Motivated by the idea that work is the best route out of poverty, successive reforms have seen single parents pushed into taking any job - through benefit conditions, sanctions, the benefit cap or reduced access to training. And this focus has now been cemented in legislation, with a new government duty to report to parliament on the number of 'workless households'.

But zeroing in on 'worklessness' conveniently avoids the fact that a job alone is often not enough to cover the bills. Faced with precarious work, inaccessible childcare and a lack of flexible jobs, single parents often end up cycling between no pay and low pay. Gingerbread research found over a fifth of single parents starting a job end up returning to jobseeker's allowance within 12 months. And when in work, families still struggle - around a quarter of children with working single parents live in poverty. While worklessness has dramatically fallen, in-work poverty remains stubbornly persistent.

Worse still, this approach has often conflated 'workless' with 'work-shy'. For single parents, being out of work generally means caring for very young children, as well as avoiding exorbitant pre-school childcare costs which mean work doesn't pay. So-called worklessness is not a lack of motivation to work. In fact, once their children reach secondary school, single parents are almost as likely to be employed as mothers in couples.

Money matters

It's also unclear where tackling rising child poverty will fit in. There's been a concerted downgrading of child poverty in government policy of late. While the damaging impact of a lack of money on children's outcomes is clear, the government (under David Cameron) controversially scrapped the targets and team which underpinned a government-wide strategy to reduce child poverty, and removed child poverty from the Social Mobility Commission's remit.

Money matters; for single parent families worst hit by combined tax and benefit reforms, it's vital the government learns this lesson. And with Brexit-induced inflation expected, it must do so soon. The freeze on children's benefits alone means the rise in living costs will far outstrip the rise in support for struggling families.

If this government is as committed to reducing poverty as it claims, its social justice strategy must avoid the blame-game when supporting families, and set out a vision for how we can move towards adequate incomes and sustainable work.

With Article 50 and our departure from the EU on the horizon, some might say that Theresa May has bigger fish to fry. But addressing rising child poverty should be part and parcel of her plan for a stronger, fairer Britain. Failing to do so undermines the promise made to the country at the start of her tenure - and undermines the prospects of millions of children facing an uncertain future.