Article for Progress: Child’s Play

Posted: 06/04/09

Budget 2009: Ending child poverty is not just a moral imperative, it could help beat the recession as well

06 April 2009

Something seems to have snapped in the public mind regarding the acceptability of inequality. Perhaps it was the dramatic manner in which recent events have revealed that fabulous wealth does not seem to correlate with competence, let alone worth, but research indicates that a majority of us believe that the gap between rich and poor is too wide. The overwhelming sense is one of an injustice being perpetrated by the few against the many.

 

Yet, perversely, just as this has happened, have we also given up on the collective will to end child poverty? Has the recession, and the meta-numbers bandied about daily in discussions about bank bailouts and public borrowing, inclined us to believe that raising the living standards of the poorest is somehow unaffordable? If we are already in over our heads, the argument goes, then now is not the time to spend, even on the most deserving cause.

 

The decision to embed the child poverty reduction target in legislation - to reduce future wriggle-room - is certainly welcome. Too much of past help for the worst off has been done by stealth, with all the risks that this makes it invisible and therefore unacknowledged. Yet targets don’t pay for school trips, or football training. They don’t replace the broken bed, or the worn out shoes. They don’t install broadband. They don’t keep the bailiffs away from the door.

Despite all the good that has been done, 3.9 million children are still living in poverty in the UK, one of the worst rates in the industrialised world. Depressingly, rising employment rates in recent years have not done enough to break the yoke - almost half of all children living in poverty have at least one parent in work. In work, but not earning enough to make ends meet. And with unemployment biting hard, the situation is likely to get worse before it improves. Life for families in poverty is a constant, unrelenting, emotionally and physically draining, struggle. For children, it restricts their horizons, denies them opportunities and all too often requires them to be sensitive before their time to the money worries of their parents. I think, for example, of the boy who sat in the dark to do his homework, terrified that a light in the window would attract the bailiffs who had an order to remove the property in lieu of council tax, including the laptop on which he did his study.

So we know we have more to do. We also know that there is genuine public unease about public spending and the state of the economy. This is not the time for apparent largesse. Yet there is a way to square the circle. For evidence shows people on low incomes are particularly inclined to do what the economy now needs them to do: they spend, particularly on local goods and services. They spend, because every penny counts on a low income, and is needed for basics, not luxuries.

 

The £3bn investment in tax credits and similar measures, called for by the End Child Poverty coalition partners, is therefore less a familiar call for altruism than a wholly sensible way of saving, even creating, the jobs we so desperately need. Some estimates calculate that £3bn could equate to over 100,000 jobs, based on the multiplier - the means by which economists work out what every pound spent in the real economy adds to national GDP. Ending child poverty has a moral imperative, certainly, but as it happens, it may also be the wisest course of action in these straitened times. What a delicious irony it would be if those least responsible for the global financial mess were the ones we relied upon to help get us out of it.

 

Karen Buck is MP for Regent’s Park and Kensington North