THE TIMES: THE REALITY OF CHILD POVERTY IN THE UKGood, I thought when I heard that Save the Children was tocampaign against child poverty in Britain. But I was troubledwhen I looked at the charity’s website and saw its claims thatBritain’s poorest children are missing regular hot meals, and thattheir parents go hungry to feed them or cannot afford warm coatsand new shoes.Child poverty in the UK is very real, but it’s not the simplepoverty that Save the Children describes. Low income is certainlyat the heart of it, but it’s also about poverty of aspiration,education and parenting. But I know why Save the Children istalking about missed meals: it captures public attention. Manytimes when I ran Barnardo’s — and during the five years in whichchild poverty was our No 1 priority — I declined to sign up tocampaigns suggesting that British families do not get enough inbenefits to feed or clothe their children. I did so for two reasons:because it’s not true, but also because such campaigns suggest thatif we met the very basic requirements of a hot meal and warmclothing, people would think that poverty had been lifted.This isn’t to say that there are not emergencies when families doneed urgent help with food or clothing. But they are generallyshort-term and caused by an administrative glitch, a maritalseparation, because money has been lost and sometimes, frankly,because it has been squandered on drink or drugs. Such crises arenot symptomatic of the welfare state’s failure to provide familieswith enough money for the basics of life.Let’s look at the income of an imaginary family of two out-of-workadults and two children, aged 10 and 15. They pay £525 a month inrent and council tax for their home. After those costs are paid, theyreceive a further £290 in benefits a week, which is little enoughwhen set against, for example, the cost of utility bills. And it leavesthem about £150 a week short of what the Joseph RowntreeFoundation estimates is needed for a socially acceptable standardof living. But that standard, quite properly for a family of fourliving outside London, includes the cost of a car as well as thingssuch as a computer and internet access.
The picture does not get much better if the father has a full-timejob at the minimum wage. Even then, they would be about £60 aweek below the Rowntree reasonable income level.Child poverty in the UK is relative, rather than absolute as in theThird World. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t real and enduring.Recently, when I was trying to persuade a conference of doctorsthat benefits were inadequate for a reasonable standard of living, Iwas told by a GP that she could easily maintain her family on £290a week. And for one week, or even two or three, she probablycould.But the nature of family poverty is that it is there every week and,in my experience, it is frequently made worse by debt. This iscaused not by extravagance, but by taking out a loan, for instance,to replace a refrigerator or buy the children Christmas presents. A£150 loan from a company such as The Provident, paid back overfour months, would attract an APR interest rate of 1,068.5 per cent.But it is simply not the case that the welfare state no longerprovides a safety net. And it is silly to claim as some do (such asNick Cohen in The Observer who drew an absurd parallelbetween Britain and Africa: “Hunger is not relative. Hunger is thesame the world over.”) that this is all about lack of Torycompassion. I have never voted for Iain Duncan Smith’s party, butit is patently ridiculous to suggest that the Work and PensionsSecretary does not care about alleviating poverty.Spending on benefits may have hit a temporary wall and may falla little. But the magnitude of the growth during my lifetime isstaggering. Last year we spent about £196 billion on benefits andpensions. In real terms, that is ten times what we spent in 1955 and40 per cent greater in real terms than in 1999.The real debate is about how we spend that budget. Means testingbenefits such as free travel and winter fuel allowances for theelderly would allow a little more for families, particularly thosewhere the parents work. Living in poverty when out of work istough. Living in poverty when a parent works full-time is atragedy.