Welfare policy “increasing poverty”

Gains made in fighting child poverty over the past decade are being put at risk by coalition welfare policies, a new report has claimed – as the government announces plans to change the way “child poverty” is measured.

The charity Children Poverty Action Group (CPAG) says that significant progress was made in reducing child poverty between 1998 and 2010, with almost 1million children lifted out of poverty and a further 900,000 children protected from falling into financial hardship.

But its recent report, Ending Child Poverty by 2020, warns that the current government’s drastic changes to policy in areas such as welfare reform, combined with the effects of the economic downturn on poorer families, could reverse much of the progress made since 1998.

The news comes in the same week as the government looks set to redefine the concept of “child poverty”. The Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith will today announce that the coalition government will abandon Labour’s method of measuring child poverty by family income. Mr Duncan Smith is due to publish a green paper looking at a range of new non-income indicators of poverty.

Backward step?

CPAG’s report, which collected views from experts and academics including the Institute of Fiscal Studies and the London School of Economics, states that the goal to eradicate child poverty by 2020 is highly unlikely to be achieved.

While it acknowledged that the previous Labour government missed its self-imposed target of halving child poverty by 2010, it said that its focus on increasing household incomes through measures like tax credits, the child trust fund and subsidised childcare was broadly successful in reducing deprivation.

Commenting on the report, Alison Garnham, chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, said the warnings for the coalition government were “crystal clear”.

“Under current policies, [the government] risk wiping out all these hard-won gains. Unless the strategy improves, their legacy threatens to be the worst child poverty record of any government for a generation,” she said.

A combination of changes in the rules for claiming child tax credit, reductions in the childcare element of working tax credit and new limits to overall benefits had all hit low-income families hard, according to the charity.

Mounting criticism

Criticism over the government’s approach to welfare policy appears to be mounting. Just two weeks ago, the children’s charity Unicef warned that government spending cuts would undermine efforts to tackle child poverty, with “frontline services for families everywhere under strain”.

Furthermore, the Institute of Education has recently published research showing that seven-year-olds who live in poverty from infancy perform substantially worse in ability tests than those from better off families.

However, despite growing pressure, the government has defended its radical welfare reforms, saying they “will improve the life outcomes” of disadvantaged children.

“Over the last decade, vast sums of money have been poured into the benefits system in an attempt to address poverty. This approach has failed and far too many children have been left behind,” commented a Department of Work and Pensions spokesman, who said that the government was committed to eradicating child poverty by 2020.

“That’s why we have increased support for families to give their children the best start in life by putting more money into early years and nursery education than ever before,” he said.

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