There was a time when the battle to reduce child poverty was pretty dominant in public policy. Each year at budget time, commentators would watch to see how much the government would give to reduce child poverty; what new scheme and initiatives would be brought in; how many billions would be dedicated to this fight. The Institute for Fiscal Studies and other experts would track what impact the latest announcement might have. Charities would debate whether it was enough (and it never was).
That, of course, was in the New Labour years. Latest figures suggest it worked, with the number of children living in poverty falling from 3 million in 1998 to 1.6 million in 2010. Yet now, as new Resolution Foundation analysis has shown, child poverty levels are on the rise again. There were 4.1 million children living in poverty in the UK in 2016-17, according to Child Poverty Action Group. And it seems like nobody particularly cares. How then have we come to this?
But even before Brexit swamped everything else we were in a bad place on the child poverty agenda. From 2010, the new government’s decision to make the need for austerity the overwhelming narrative relegated issues such as child poverty to something, at best, to sort out later. In both the coalition and then Conservative government periods, even those who cared about the topic would not put it high enough up their agenda to demand serious sustained action. And in opposition, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour has not made ending child poverty its rallying cry, with a more general desire to end austerity and take many key services back into public ownership dominating: as many pointed out, the 2017 Labour manifesto had surprisingly little in it for those at the bottom of the pile.
Key also to the Labour government’s success in bringing down child poverty was a willingness to get money directly into the hands of those with children who were in poverty. By definition, children are in poverty because their families don’t have enough income: give them money through tax credits, targeted financial support, and increasing child benefit and you will have impacts. Yet that rather obvious point is anathema to many on the right, even the socially concerned. They argue that it is just a sticking plaster, that combined with the targets that Labour gave itself – to reduce child poverty by half by 2010 – it created incentives to use cash transfers to push people just over the poverty threshold and ignore the real underlying issues.
Of course we must work on preventive policies to avoid families ever getting into poverty, be they about education, skills, housing or health issues. But in truth, since 2010 we have seen little substantial action in these areas and in any case, it should never be an excuse for not acting to help people in need now.
So this is the key ingredient: political choices. But Gordon Brown was also savvy enough to know that the British public were always a bit ambivalent about child poverty. Did it really exist? Were British kids starving – as that was what poverty instinctively means to most, however much policy experts pushed the concept of relative poverty. And if they were, wasn’t it all about their ne’er-do-well parents?
Part of the Labour strategy therefore was to produce a coalition of charities, faith groups and concerned people, including those on the centre right, to highlight the issue. It was almost as though we were creating a pressure group to make us to do the right thing. And that political pressure is a key part of creating momentum for action.
When I moved to my current job, working with charities and funders, I asked many children’s charities why they had gone so (relatively) silent on child poverty. Many said that they had to use their resources sensibly and that lobbying a government that was never really going to respond in a substantial way was not a good use of money. That was perhaps a rational response, but it is surely time now to get angry about what is happening and to say it loud and clear. Child poverty is a scar on our society – but we know from experience that we can do something about it if we really want to.
• Dan Corry is the chief executive of New Philanthropy Capital and a former Downing Street and Treasury adviser to the Labour government