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Opinion – Where is Child Poverty in Levelling Up?

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Hal Arnold-Forster

Policy and Research Analyst, Curia

Research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies has found that half of all children in lone-parent families are now living in relative poverty. The research also shows that relative poverty for children in lone-parent families has risen at a significantly faster rate compared with other households. 

Almost 90% of the 1.8 million lone-parent families in Britain are headed by women, with lone-parent families together raising 3.1 million children, or more than 20% of all children in Britain.

Relative poverty is defined as having an income of less than 60% of the national median income when adjusted for household size.

The report is stark. It lays bare (as has been done countless times) the cost of a decade of austerity-driven benefits cuts on families that are now in a much more vulnerable position amidst the current cost of living crisis. But it also makes the challenges facing the Levelling Up agenda even more pronounced.

Levelling Up Child Poverty?

Child poverty remains by far the strongest predictor of a child’s future life chances. High early achievers from poorer backgrounds are overtaken by lower achieving children from advantaged backgrounds.

Perhaps the most fundamental stated aim of the Levelling Up agenda is to equalise opportunity in the UK. As is written in the Levelling Up white paper, “talent is spread equally across our country, opportunity is not”, and as such, “Levelling up means giving everyone the opportunity to flourish”.

Given his core aim of Levelling Up, and the centrality of child poverty to future life chances, you’d be forgiven for assuming that the Levelling Up White Paper would be the Government’s magnum opus on eliminating child poverty. Certainly, if the Government is interested in equalising opportunity, child poverty is the largest barrier to doing so.

There is, however, no mention of ‘child poverty’ in the entire 305 pages of the White Paper. Not one.

To put it charitably, this is thoroughly confusing. Regional inequalities in the UK include clear and impossible to ignore differences in child poverty rates across the UK, with Northern communities disproportionately more likely to face child poverty. These issues were urgent before the pandemic, and this has only gotten worse over the last two years.

If Levelling Up is to be about more than firms setting up offices in areas outside of London, if it is to tackle longer-term determinants of inequality, those that are also highly correlated with inequality facing regions, then child poverty cannot be ignored. Whether this is to be part of a national strategy, or, as part of local devolution packages this is placed under the remit of local and regional governments is certainly an important consideration. But in order to even discuss this, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities must first include child poverty within the Levelling Up Agenda.

Child Poverty and Successive Conservative Governments

While the Levelling Up agenda seems an obvious policy programme in which to address child poverty, however it is perhaps unsurprising that the Conservative party have missed this opportunity. In 12 years in power, this has rarely if ever been high up the Conservative agenda.

The Coalition Government’s 2014-17 child poverty strategy said that it was “firmly committed to the goal of ending child poverty in the UK by 2020.” This target, however, was officially dropped with little fanfare or public attention, when the Child Poverty Act of 2010 (which required the publication of a national tri-yearly child poverty strategy) was repealed by the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016.

At the time, Ministers claimed that child poverty targets incentivised them to target funding to get people from just below the poverty line to just above it. My thoughts here were twofold. Firstly, Ministers remained entirely in control of whether they actually did so. Secondly, even if this is a kink to be ironed out, it did not warrant scrapping the strategy entirely with nothing in place to fill this gap.

Certainly, the conspicuous absence of child poverty from the Levelling Up agenda is hard to separate from questions around whether Levelling Up makes up for years of austerity and cuts to council funding.

Speaking of the efforts of Labour governments in the 2000s to tackle child poverty, former Prime Minister Tony Blair said: “that legacy [of addressing child poverty] has been undermined over the past decade as state benefits have been eroded, growth has been weak and wages stagnant, despite high employment rates for lone parents.”

Tony Blair Child Poverty
Former Prime Minister, Tony Blair

But for all of the reticence to tackle this issue head on in the 2010s, it seems that the Conservative party have a very real opportunity to seize ownership of this issue, and if they want Levelling Up to succeed, I suggest that they have an obligation to do so.

Should we care about relative poverty at all?

Underlying the history of this subject is the question, does the Conservative Party, in its heart of hearts, believe relative child poverty is a problem? There has long been a reticence in the Conservative Party to a relative measure of poverty. Even the name “Levelling Up” harks back to the old Tory view that socialism “levels down” the country.

However, relative poverty is the most theoretically sound measure of poverty that we have. Poverty is a shortage of resources compared to needs, and these resources and needs must be considered in a social context of time and place. As it was put by the political economist David Brady, “Income is also a positional good: it defines where one stands in society. We use income to compete with other people, who are also aiming to meet their needs. Income confers status in communities and society, and status is always relative to that of others.”

What this means is that the value of our income, of our resources, is always relative not absolute.

Relative poverty thus allows us to define poverty according to the prevailing standards of society in a given time and place. The reason we should accept this as a definition, is the same reason that we would find it reprehensible if someone was to say to a poor person in England that they should be grateful that they are better off than poor people in developing countries.

Final Thought

If the Conservative party wishes to rail against a relative measure of poverty, they are choosing to view people as islands, to ignore the fact that poverty is not a static concept, but rather a matter of falling seriously behind the prevailing standards of one’s society.

It is this fundamental contradiction that lies at the heart of Levelling Up. The Government wishes to bring other areas up to the level of large economic hubs like London and Manchester, an aim which implicitly takes living standards in relative terms (i.e., the idea that some areas are doing poorly relative to London). Yet when it comes to tackling child poverty, relative measures are held to be inappropriate.    

More so than any other factor, growing up in poverty is the strongest determinant of living in poverty later in life. And it is this fact that makes it essential to the Levelling Up agenda, as well as undermining all 305 pages of the Levelling Up White Paper that do not mention it. It is not too late for this to be changed. Levelling Up remains in its infancy, and if it is to achieve all that it could, it cannot start from this impoverished state.

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