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Child poverty and social exclusion

George Gabriel
14 September 2009

On Wednesday night Lesley Ward, president of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), furiously denounced the depths of depravation teachers now see in their classes, "There are perfectly healthy children who enter school not yet toilet-trained. Children who cannot dress themselves, children who only know how to eat with a spoon, and have never sat around a table to enjoy a home-cooked family meal."

With 2.9 million children still living in poverty, despite the brave pledge of 1999 to have halved child poverty levels of 3.4 million by 2010, this is like so much about the now old New Labour, grimly predictable.

One might take comfort from the fact that at least on child poverty Labour seem to show some metal. "Eradicate poverty in a generation", the allocation of an extra 2 billion in tax credits in 2006, and Financial Secretary to the Treasury Stephen Timms' speech on the Child Poverty Bill which ended determinedly - "let's keep working together to make a reality of the ambition all of us share: to eradicate child poverty in Britain." Yet strength without imagination is brute, New Labour must look back to its best moments if Timms is be in government in a year's time - let alone the end of the "generation" in 2020.

Lifting half a million children from poverty is a triumph to be celebrated. Equally important however was the definition of poverty as a relative concept - that what constitutes poverty depends on one's state relative to that of others in society, or in the case of the UK, where one's income falls below 60% of the median. With poverty as a relative concept a strong egalitarian ethic was concreted. Degradation is not only about being unable to afford shoes, but social exclusion. This was a major triumph for progressive politics; Labour has sold itself short with the abandonment of this imagination.

Timms' speech is illustrative. The heart of Labour policy, designed to lift another half million children out of poverty within a year is continuing the drive to "make work pay". Policy is targeting the 350,000 children living in families where only one parent works, in the hope that by incentivizing the other parent into the job market while reducing barriers to employment an easy win can be recorded. Is this pragmatism? Or is this a failure of imagination?

Timms rightly notes "The risk of being in poverty is 68% for a child living with two non working parents. When one parent works full time, that falls to 18%. When both work, it falls to 3% - even if one parent is only working part-time." The minimum wage has been a vital part of "making work pay" as have tax credits, but though this has driven up incomes (and no doubt should be used further) it has not tapped into the radicalism of New Labour's new thought - poverty is a relative concept. The income of the poorest must not just rise, but rise in relation to average income levels so that social exclusion also diminishes. An imaginative policy to meet this challenge might be the introduction of maximum earning ratios, freezing and then lowering the difference between a company's highest and lowest earners, in the wake of proper investigation by a High Pay Commission.

But the failure of imagination runs deeper than policy, to principles. Amartya Sen criticized income centered understandings of poverty as incomplete. Though education is vital in securing higher later earnings he forcefully argues that it should also be considered constitutive of development, itself part ending poverty. Surely the same impulse that drove New Labour to re-imagine poverty into a relative concept concerned with social inclusion, must drive it still further. A little girl unable to use a knife and fork is socially excluded. And though this may be because her parents have no time to spend with her because they are too busy struggling to make ends meet ,the exclusion consists in the fact that she can only use a spoon as well as the fact of living in a low income household. Raising income is clearly one of the most effective ways of lowering poverty, yet poorness is only part of poverty. Ward for example talks with horror of a new "poverty of aspiration".

Though the sincerity with which this important objective is being pursued is clear, target obsession is a well known New Labour vice. In its noble drive to eliminate child poverty in a rigid regime of targets, New Labour risks sacrificing its means to its ends as second parents are encouraged into work and out of the home, perhaps further undermining the key relationships of care that have the greatest impact on forming our children's' characters and developing their capabilities to participate with dignity, as equals in society.

Poverty should be re-imagined in terms of the capabilities necessary for social inclusion: to dress yourself and use a fork, to think critically and have loving relationships, to control your bladder. This is not to deny the vital role of income as a tool in poverty reduction, but simply to challenge the lack of inspiration that allowed our means to masquerade as our ends. Every act of imagination is rebellious. The truly radical understanding of poverty as social exclusion adopted by New Labour demands further change, that social exclusion be broadened beyond income as poverty was broadened into a relative concept. Nothing short of rebellion is required to resurrect Labour as a worthy electoral contender, one able to meaningfully end child poverty.

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