Announcements you may have missed:
Wednesday 27 March: Government announces that life expectancy falls for the poorest women in the UK. Dropping life expectancy in peacetime is extraordinary.
The gap in life expectancy between rich and poor is also increasing, as is the gap in healthy life expectancy. The poorest men are expected to have 19.1 years less healthy life than the richest.
Thursday 28 March: 4.1 million UK children are trapped in poverty, 70% of them are in working families. The annual statistics on poverty in the UK show more poverty and deprivation – despite there being more people in employment.
Monday 8 April: £1.5 billion is cut from social security benefits. The freeze in benefit levels rolls on, delivering huge cuts to in-work and out-of-work benefits. Overall, the freeze will hit around 27 million people but its worst effects are focused on poorer parents and of course their children.
This country has enough wealth so that its children do not need to be held back by poverty, and so that its poorer adults do not die younger. But this is what is happening – the statistics are clear.
The view of the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty is that we have arrived here because of political choices about how to distribute the money our economy produces. It is hard to put forward any other reasonable explanation.
It is important to recognise that reductions in taxation and cuts to benefits broadly balanced each other out. The net result was not to reduce the deficit, it was to change how the fruits of the UK economy were distributed. The stated hope was to incentivise work and reward successful individuals and businesses.
We were repeatedly (and inaccurately) told that “work is the best route out of poverty”. The aim was encourage people to work their way out of poverty. To aid this the Government even an attempted to redefine poverty so that a person became less poor simply by getting a job even if they were no better off.
Working for your poverty
What happened next was essentially a nine year experiment testing a set of ideas about the causes of poverty. The results overwhelmingly tell us that those ideas were wrong. More importantly those families involved in the test have been permanently damaged.
The hypothesis was that poverty was caused by poorer people not doing enough work. The key explanation for these families doing so little work was that benefits provided a disincentive. Sometimes this was viewed as a reasonable response to a bad benefit system and sometimes it was portrayed as the result of poorer communities suffering from a “culture of worklessness”.
Either way the solution was to cut benefits and hence “incentivise” work. Indeed the impact assessment of Monday’s £1.5 billion cut that takes around £200 from the poorest parents, states that a drop in income will actually improve children’s life chances by creating an incentive for their parents to choose to enter work.
Should these “incentives” not be sufficient to encourage people to look for work, harsh punishments called benefit sanctions were imposed. These take away the living expenses of families for up to 3 years in order to “end the something-for-nothing culture”.
The number of people in work did increase. I think that the gradually improving economy bringing employment rates back to the pre-2008 economic crisis trend offers a better explanation for this than welfare reforms. There is, however, no conclusive evidence either way as to the effect of the cuts on employment and the government didn’t look for any.
As the numbers in work increased so did the numbers trapped in child poverty. More work was delivered at the same time as more deprivation, more homelessness, more destitution, more foodbank visits, and more poverty.
In one homeless shelter I visited, they have changed the layout and routine so that their homeless clients can have a shower in the morning in order to get to work on time. More work did not mean less poverty – it just means that people worked harder for their poverty. Crucially it also means that those near the bottom recognise that they could be sucked under anytime and that the benefit system will not be there to rescue them. Of all the effects of welfare reform, that deep insecurity is to my mind the most corrosive.
An experiment where we knew the answer before we started
Take money from poor people and that will make them less poor. It is not a new idea – it is a variation of the beliefs of Rev Thomas Malthus who was instrumental in designing the 1834 New Poor Law – but it was never convincing unless you were really motivated to believe it.
The basic flaw was simple. Most family incomes are made up of two components: benefits and earnings. If you cut benefits then earnings must rise by at least the same amount or the family will get poorer. The government’s own Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission did the maths. They made heroic estimates about the number of extra hours families could work and found that for many families, especially those with children, they couldn’t work enough to earn the amounts cut from their benefits. In effect families would be working more but getting poorer.
The trend is clear. The majority of poverty is in working families. Today 70% of children experiencing poverty are in working families. Cutting benefits and pushing people towards work is a failed poverty increasing policy.
The way ahead
What policy can break, policy can fix. It is possible to use taxation, employment and benefits policies to ensure all children get a decent start in life. Once we ditch the fantasies that taking money away from poor families actually helps them, options open up.
The way forward is to drop the failed ideas and to look to the people who experience poverty. In 2010 the belief was it was disadvantaged people who needed their “culture changed”. Today it is clear that it is government and policy professionals (myself included) who need a “culture change”. We need to recognise that cold, even well intentioned, study of poverty while looking in from the outside is no longer an acceptable basis for policy design.
We need the humility to understand that our expertise in research and data is simply not enough to design good policy. We need to recognise that the expertise of those who experience poverty is essential at every stage of the process.
I have often invoked the phrase “made in God’s image” to say that all people deserve the dignity of having enough to make ends meet. And April’s £1.5 billion in cuts are a further affront to that dignity. Looking at how these cuts come about I am slowly understanding that to be made in God’s image must mean much more. It must mean being included, being valued and having the right to be a partner in the changes that affect our lives.
 CPAG gives a readable explanation here http://www.cpag.org.uk/content/new-face-child-poverty
 That happened through economic growth, improving tax revenues and by cutting local authority and departmental budgets
 Employment is important but 30% of families that move into paid work remain in poverty. Positive changes to family structure produce a higher rate of poverty exits. The reality is complex and the oversimplification of “work is the best route out of poverty” ignores really important information https://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20130314011914/http://research.dwp.gov.uk/asd/asd5/rrep157.pdf