Nigel Hastilow: Poor imagination over child poverty

About 3.5 children are allegedly doomed to lives of poverty by the year 2020 – yet nobody can agree what ‘poverty’ actually means.


Are these poor, deprived young things living in shanty towns, scrabbling around for something to eat, with no shoes on their feet and their clothes in tatters?

Are they denied education and health care? Do they have to beg for their food and are they forced to resort to petty crime simply to keep body and soul together? Are they dying of rickets?

There may be a few genuinely poor and staving kids up and down the country. But Britain is not some third-world banana republic. Our children are generally fed, housed, schooled and kept healthy – even if their families don’t have a lot of money.

The problem is that anti-poverty campaigners, trying to make us feel guiltily hard-hearted, keep moving the goalposts.

There is no accepted definition of what ‘poverty’ actually is. As a result, it means you can fling around the word ‘poverty’ and use it as a weapon against the Government, the rich or the smug.

But as Humpty Dumpty says in ‘Alice in Wonderland’: ‘When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

Alan Milburn, the former Labour Health Secretary and now the Coalition’s social mobility tsar, claims the Government has no chance of succeeding in its aim to abolish child poverty by 2020.

In fact, he says, Government policies mean the number of children in poverty is destined to rise to 3.5 million from 2.3 million.

His report argues that even with full employment and everyone working all the hours God sends, there still won’t be enough money available to the poorest quarter of the population to lift their children out of poverty.

In a prosperous and successful society, you would be forgiven for thinking this is an appalling scandal which shames us all. You might think something must be done.

Inevitably that something is taking more money from relatively well-off taxpayers and transferring it to the huddled masses.

We all know the gap between rich and poor is wider than ever. We are all outraged at bankers’ bonuses, MPs’ expenses, fat cats’ salaries and all the examples of conspicuous consumption by the filthy rich.

They only pay tax if they feel like it. The rest of us have no choice. So if child poverty is to be eradicated, the money can only come from the squeezed middle.

The question is whether Mr Milburn’s dire warnings and terrible pessimism are as appalling as they seem. And that comes back to the question of what he actually means when he uses the loaded word ‘poverty’.

As he says in his report, it’s a ‘lamentable farce’ that ministers can’t agree on how to measure poverty. All they can agree on, it seems, is that the existing methods are rubbish.

Take Mr Milburn’s headline-grabbing statistic that 3.5 million children will be living in poverty in six years’ time.

It must come as a shock to various campaigning organisations which claim we already have that many kids living in poverty.

Barnardo’s says: ‘There are currently 3.5 million children living in poverty in the UK. That’s almost a third of all children. 1.6 million of these children live in severe poverty . In the UK 63 per cent of children living in poverty are in a family where someone works.’

The Child Poverty Action Group says: ‘There are 3.5 million children living in poverty in the UK today. That’s 27 per cent of children, or more than one in four.’1

Oddly, Barnardo’s says their 3.5 million represent ‘almost a third’ of children while the CPAG claims it’s 27 per cent – so presumably they can’t even agree on how many children there are in the country.

Barnardo’s goes on to say ‘poverty’ for a family with two adults and two children is an income of less than £349 a week or £18,148 a year. If you were to add in tax, someone would have to earn £22,344 to stay above this poverty line.

Another definition says if a family has a disposable income of less than £9,000 a year, or £173 a week, after tax, then they are poor. A third calculation puts the figure at £250 a week or £13,000 a year.

You will be relieved to know the Government claims child poverty is actually less of a problem. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation agrees, saying the proportion ‘at risk’ of poverty has fallen between three and five per cent.

It’s difficult not to be cynical about all these anti-poverty campaigns. They don’t mean poverty in the sense of starvation, disease and death. They mean having less – possessions, days out, holidays – than other people.

It’s not that there is no poverty in this country. It’s just that the more that campaigners exaggerate the numbers and over-state their case, the less we’re likely to believe them.