Child poverty, health, and the Welfare Reform and Work Act

"The eyes of the world are turning to Great Britain. We now have the moral leadership of the world"  So it was in 1948 when Aneurin Bevan explained that the welfare state was to be a solution to the problem of poverty. Poverty according to Bevan was “a consequence of poor social organisation".  Thus “the weak first, and the strong next" became a guiding principle of the welfare state. Nearly 70 years later, does Britain have the moral leadership of the world?  Child poverty is often used as a barometer of the moral health of a society because it tells us something about how well we protect our young, dependent, and vulnerable. 

There is bad news here. One in three children in the UK is living in poverty. That means there are 3.7 million poor children living among us. But by any measure, the UK is one of the wealthiest countries in the world. There are many ways of measuring wealth. And each one tells a story in a different way. If you measure country wealth by private wealth, things like property values, or average wealth per person, the UK is among the top five countries in the world. This figure has been cited frequently in recent months. Perhaps it conveys a sense of economic success. Certainly it signifies economic success for the wealthy. The source of the figure is not clear but may come from a website that "helps give a deeper level of understanding of the world’s wealthiest individuals”. However if you measure wealth by gross domestic product expressed in purchasing power per capita, the UK is ranked further down the list of countries. The International Monetary Fund and World Bank cite GDP-based measures. The differences between the former and the latter ways of examining wealth are partly explained by the distribution income among the population. Looking specifically at a measure of income inequality is important, because it also relates directly to health. The UK’s gini coefficient is higher than most comparable wealthy European countries.

So how you measure things matters. It tells a story. It is political. It can be powerful. The government proposed a Welfare Reform and Work Bill (WRWB) in 2015 and it slowly made its way through debates in the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Ping-Ponging between Houses and largely not capturing the public imagination. And for a while, not mine either - to my shame.  Bills and debates can make for dry and somewhat dull reading. Not this one. This one was shocking.

The Bill proposed to repeal most of the Child Poverty Act (2010) and with it the government’s duty to meet child poverty reduction targets. It proposed to stop measuring child poverty according to income, and instead measure household worklessness. It put a cap on the amount of welfare a family can receive. Certain benefits would stop for third and subsequent children. The stated intent of many of these measures was to tackle the root causes of poverty, encourage work, promote life chances. The life chances idea sounds appealing. It is promoted in speeches with quotes such as:

“break free from all of the old, outdated thinking about poverty”

“….by applying a more sophisticated and deeper understanding of what disadvantage means in Britain today we can transform life chances.”

So by measuring workless households rather than income, it was argued that we would be taking a more nuanced look at causes of poverty. The Prime Minister said

“since 2010 alone, the number of children growing up in workless households is at a record low; down by 480,000”.

But look more closely and the picture is more complicated than it may seem. Employment and education are important, but the strongest evidence is for income as a direct link with child health. Income levels, and loss of income, are directly related to child health. What’s more the UK’s child poverty ranking relative to other countries is related mostly to differences in welfare policies, in social protection, rather than employment. Two thirds of children who live in poverty have at least one parent in work. So work does not always pay enough to lift children out of poverty. Zero hours contracts and low paid jobs count as being employed. Is employment a meaningful measure for enhancing our understanding of what’s happening to children? Answer? Not enough. Income is the best measure of poverty.

Income is the best measure of poverty, in that it most closely reflects what we need to know to improve what happens to children. And because it has been measured for many years it allows us to track trends, see what’s happening in response to policies and changes in society. Since other countries measure the same thing, it helps us compare ourselves with others, learn from them and improve what we do.

So income as a measure of poverty is valid, comparable, and consistent. Lack of income is a cause of poverty, not a consequence.  It is a good measure, by most standards.  And child poverty, as measured by income, is a significant child health concern. Poor children are more likely to die and those that survive are more likely to experience adverse health and developmental conditions. Poor children have worse educational, social, and behavioural outcomes too.  Disadvantaged children tend to grow up into adults with limited potential too, fewer opportunities, worse health. Child poverty matters across the entire life course.

The APPG scrutinised the Bill, took written and oral evidence, and produced a report documenting a careful analysis of the impact the WRWB will have on child poverty and health. Substantial progress had been made in reducing child poverty in Britain, but these trends are now reversing. The WRWB will increase child poverty, reduce efforts to combat it, and distract us from understanding what’s happening. The disproportionate disadvantage for Britain’s children will worsen.

The Ping-Ponging between Houses continued. And a seemingly small, but marvellous thing happened. It didn’t attract much press attention. But it was vital. An amendment was made to the Bill that ensured the continuation of child poverty measured by income. The Welfare Reform and Work Act (WRWA) became law on March 16, 2016. This was the same day the government’s budget was announced which proposed to cut around £1bn per year by 2020 from Personal Independence Payments which help disabled people to manage the higher costs of living for example, needing a ceiling-mounted hoist in order to move from bed to toilet. £4.6 bn in cuts to disability benefit had been proposed in total.  Ian Duncan Smith resigned from his position as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions citing the increasingly regressive policies of the Government targetting the poor, the proposed cuts were reversed. Whatever his motives were, his actions triggered an unexpected and marked shift in policy. It attracted huge amounts of press attention.

Two important policy changes; one quiet, one loud. Both important for protecting people. And both serve to remind us that policy change is possible. Evidence and advocacy can lead to change.

The current Conservative government was elected last year promising to fix public finances, and it is setting about trying to do that in large part by cutting welfare spending. It is the weak who have been targeted most in the welfare cuts. Children, women, and disabled people.  The claim that  “we are all in it together” rings hollow.  Does Britain have the moral leadership of the world? Sadly, not.

Ingrid Wolfe, BACAPH executive co-chair

March, 2016

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