Findings from the British Social Attitudes survey for 2011 published today show strong support for reducing child poverty (82% regard this as ‘very important’) and for central government taking the lead role in this (79%).
On the face of it, this might look like a remarkable endorsement of Labour’s prioritisation of child poverty while in power.
However, the public judgment on Labour’s record is negative: 46% of people believe (erroneously) that child poverty increased over the ten years to 2009, while only 12% believe (correctly) that it fell.
Moreover when we look at the factors the public regards as important in driving child poverty, it is clear they see the issue in overwhelmingly conservative terms, blaming drug and alcohol addiction, laziness and family breakdown far more than low pay, social inequality or lack of affordable housing.
Child poverty is thus seen much more in terms of personal failure than social or economic factors. For supporters of the social democratic elements in Labour’s approach (always much stronger than its rhetoric while in office suggested), these should be devastating findings.
The target of eliminating child poverty by 2020 was not only emblematic of Labour’s continuing commitment to social justice: it underpinned much of what was most successful in its social policy agenda (Sure Start, increased employment for lone parents, tax credits).
But the implication of today’s findings is that by raising the profile of child poverty, Labour has ultimately provided a boost to conservative disagnoses of social problems and to the policies of work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith.
Bear in mind the Conservative (and increasingly Lib Dem) strategy on child poverty is to redefine the issue in terms of smaller scale more severe problems, focusing in on what can be presented as the extremes of social dysfunction and away from more general factors such as redistribution, labour market conditions and childcare provision which were at the centre of Labour’s approach.
Thus small minorities of ‘poor families’- those facing the greatest challenges – are presented as representative of child poverty in general, even though the conclusion from most research into poverty is that the only thing poor families generally have in common is that they haven’t got enough money.
It now seems clear this strategy connects with public attitudes and beliefs. For example, 75% of respondents to the survey think drug and alcohol addiction are one of the reasons children are in poverty, while 20% think they are the main reason. These are by some margin the most commonly cited factors in the survey.
In fact the prevalence of addiction among parents is of a completely different order to that of income poverty: for example, 2.7% of parents in all couple families (not just poor couples) are estimated to have a problem of alcohol dependency, while the poverty rate for children in couples is 24% after housing costs (see “Mental health and child poverty”, Nick Gould [pdf]).
This lack of fit holds for drug dependency and for lone parents as well. Clearly addiction can only make a minor contribution to overall child poverty, but it looks as if political messages that conflate the two will resonate with the public.
Only last week, Mr Duncan Smith cited drug addiction as an argument against increasing the incomes of the poor: today’s survey results indicate this argument will be widely accepted. The only element in the Conservative diagnosis which is roundly rejected by the public is its exaggerated claims about the intergenerational transmission of poverty: only 3% of respondents believe this is the main reason children are poor.
Otherwise, the BSA results are an endorsement not of Labour’s social democratic approach but of the world-view of Iain Duncan Smith and Labour’s social conservatives, such as Frank Field and Graham Allen.
For the coalition, this will strengthen the case for redefining the relative income measure of child poverty which Labour hung around their necks before leaving office through the Child Poverty Act. For some in Labour, it will count as evidence for the political unsustainability of social democratic strategies.
But the main lesson may not be about policy so much as language. ‘Child poverty’ was always an ambiguous term. For progressives and social democrats (and most academics and economists), poverty is essentially an issue of distribution and employment, but the wider and generally negative connotations of the word ‘poverty’ cannot easily be dispelled.
As Kate Bell and Jason Strelitz wrote on Left Foot Forward last month:
“Too often the way child poverty has been discussed has been as if “the poor” were different from others, with different values and needs, cut off from the rest of society.”
That may just be an inescapable implication of any use of the term ‘poverty’, which historically has always involved connotations of loss of status and dependency. Thus to centre progressive policy around the notion of poverty was to sign a Faustian pact with inherited connotations of exclusion and dependency which ultimately only serve to support conservative disagnoses – such as the grossly exaggerated role ascribed to addiction.
‘Poverty’, for the time being at least, belongs to big and small ‘c’ conservatives. One option for social democrats is to let them keep it; as Bell and Strelitz suggest, “forget child poverty”. That may sound like a drastic solution, but it captures the urgency of rethinking the social democratic approach, not just in terms of policy but in terms of concepts and language.
• A-list Tory ‘asks’ how we can stop the poor from having too many kids – Alex Hern, November 18th 2011
• Forget “child poverty”; just fight for a decent childhood for all – Kate Bell and Jason Strelitz, November 15th 2011
• Currie v Jones: Do people go hungry in Britain? – Alex Hern, November 14th 2011
• The coalition is actively increasing child poverty – Felicity Dennistoun, October 11th 2011
• How poor children will get poorer on Cameron’s watch – Dr Sam Royston, October 11th 2011