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Saving the children? Another child poverty report misses the bigger picture

5 September 2012

9:06 PM

5 September 2012

9:06 PM

Yesterday’s reshuffle isn’t the only story in town. Save the Children, a global charity, has today started to fundraise for children in Britain whom it says are affected by the government’s cuts. It is now run by Justin Forsyth, an ex-aide to Gordon Brown, who will have understood the political implications of the research: that coalition policies are making child poverty worse. The problem is that this analysis mistakes the nature of poverty in Britain, and – worst of all – the ways of alleviating that poverty.

The root problem is a confusion of low income as a cause of these issues, rather than the symptom of wider social failings it often represents. This basic failure has characterised political programmes and grand government schemes for years.  The starting point has been that poverty (and child poverty) means living below an arbitrary income line – set as it currently is at 60 per cent of the national median – and, accordingly, the way to fight poverty is to redistribute wealth in order to move households just above said line.

Based on this measure, a family can go to bed on a Monday night ‘in poverty’ and wake up on a Tuesday morning out of it, thanks to minor spreadsheet tweaks to welfare and tax credits made in Westminster.  Ministers get their headline and people get a few extra pounds, but what for example would have changed for the child of a drug-addicted parent?  Nothing at all.

Even more absurd is the fact that during a recession, poverty on this measure is often reduced as national average incomes fall and benefits tend to remain stable.  Recent child poverty figures revealed hundreds of thousands of children were ‘lifted’ out of poverty as a result of the latest recession, for example.


Unsurprisingly this ‘poverty plus a pound’ approach has failed to change lives.  Look no further than the previous Government.  Labour ministers spent an eye-watering £150 billion on tax credits between 2004 and 2010 in an attempt to chase targets and lift people above the so-called poverty line.  The result?  A one percentage point reduction in the proportion of children living below the poverty line.

Such a simplistic approach fails because it takes no account of the many damaging social problems that cause low income – such as family instability and breakdown, educational failure, drug and alcohol addiction or mental ill-health.  As our team at the Centre for Social Justice has travelled to the poorest parts of the UK to meet and listen to those in poverty, we have been struck by how this breakdown ruins people’s chances of avoiding or escaping poverty.  Much of it is documented in our report Breakthrough Britain.

Some of the Save the Children report is insightful. Stories of financial hardship should move us to urgent action. But if government spending was the solution to child poverty, it would indeed have been eradicated under the last government.

The conclusion calls for certain responses that unfortunately, as with countless other child poverty reports over the years, fail to tackle any of the root causes of poverty. Recognising and confronting these root causes of poverty would be a much better place to begin.  A family’s level of income matters, but so often it is determined by factors politicians have ignored for too long.

Becoming fixated with helping families to stay together, enabling parents to find and progress in work to become self-reliant, and delivering inspirational education for children in the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods should be our starting point.  A stable family with two parents in work is much less likely to live in poverty.  If we want to reduce the number of children caught in a cycle of disadvantage, we have to start by asking what sends them there in the first place.

Christian Guy is Managing Director of the Centre for Social Justice.

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Show comments
  • Marcus

    What is certain is that genuine poverty is rare in Britain and plenty of children across the globe live far happier and more fulfilled lives, with a much smaller fraction of the money spent on bringing up British children. This is clearly not a money issue.
    Ask a Somalian taxi driver, who invariably has a degree from back home, what his childhood was like financially.
    Or just ask an elderly relative about their childhood and decide for yourself: ‘Did they have more or less that a child on government benefits today’. The answer is that of course people brought up in the ’30s had less, as many children in the last 30 years have been brought up by the state with money from unpaid government debts written off to the future. That didn’t happen in the 30’s. However this has not brought happiness.

    Very good last paragraph. There are some even here that would sadly disagree with that. Fraser himself wrote something dodgy about being ‘fine with lots of children being born out of marriage’. It is an incredibly difficult culture to change and I am not sure state sponsored social engineering will work. Has it worked anywhere else?

  • Gina Dean

    Does this charity want more money because I doubt if they got more it would go on anyone here. Maybe the CEO could take a pay cut out of his wages to help the POOR here. We are a nation of generous givers to charity. look at how much was raised for Haiti but has it done any good the NGOs are leaving after 2 years because they have run out of money. Leaving behind people under canvas.Money should not be given, food and machinery and the materials to build.

  • Gerry Boy

    I am sorry Christian. You have written the above for the best motives so I will try to be fair and generous in my criticism.

    In the Newsnight discussion last nite on child poverty the woman from Glasgow Tracey Nugent spoke with a quiet dignity and testimony. On the other hand all of the other participants – men from the world of policy wonkery spoke as if you knew better, had instant solutions and were like today’s version of the man from Whitehall knows best. The guy from Save the Children, the ex-SPAD was like this, but IMHO you came over much worse: as the believer in social engineering rather than starting from where we are, progress made and not made.

    No doubt you think this unfair and an inaccurate reading of your motives. And maybe it partly is BUT from outside the policy wonk world this world and its limited grasp of realities is a MAJOR part of the problem. Stop being part of the problem. Which is what this article is.

  • Gina Dean

    How come those who they say are living in poverty can still afford their beer and cigs, sky tv have a mobile phone. Have there holidays. They need to be shown how to manage the money, how to feed the family on what they get. Its rubbish to say some go with out food to feed their children They are just badly organised or I should say lazy.Just on the 4 items at the start of this will cost £400 a month. Cut back on those.

  • jebediah

    The biggest problem is poverty is defined as a relative not an absolute. In a nation of millionaires under this method there would still be child poverty. The relative measure is a simple one to calculate but it is also close to functionally useless.

  • Iain Hill

    Sustained family support
    Mentoring to replace absent parent(s)
    Financial investment over the long-term
    Opportunities and training
    Routes into work
    Taxes to pay for all of this.

    • James102

      Support and mentoring from the type of people who left the baby I wrote about above with drug addicts? The type of people who left Baby Peter to be beaten to death? The type of people who left Victoria Climbie to be tortured and murdered?
      These people are unfit to support or mentor anyone.

  • dorothy wilson

    The most effective way to reduce child poverty would be to limit child benefit to two children from now.

    • M Lewis

      I agree that there now have to be measures to discourage people from having larger families if they are honestly unlikely to have the financial means within the family (and within the extended family ) to support them. Limiting child benefit is, I agree, a goo start, if only to somehow transmit the message that govt can’t fund more and more children (for example two people coming together with children from previous marriages and then deciding to have three more together, making five or six in total ). Each adult (man and woman) could maybe claim CB once each (so that in intact families they could claim for the first two children). If they then go on to have more children, that’s a couple’s decision to make and there’s no doubt that large families are a joy – but they have to accept that there’s no more CB from taxpayers.

  • Nicholas

    Everywhere politically motivated, often single issue, predominantly left wing crusading groups are building lucrative lobbying empires called charities and forming alliances. They all indulge in emotional blackmail and hyperbole to state their cases. How many child-centered “charities” are there now and given the extent of government subsidies for them how many are sustainable? Gordon Brown was always banging on about raising children out of poverty when Labour might have done better by taking a long hard look at the way they had subverted just raising children over the years. This has his chubby fingers all over it and is just part of the wider socialist conniving to undermine a government they don’t like which is incompetently tackling problems they caused. I’m sick of the dissembling, deceit and downright lies from this horde and the fact that media too often goes along with it rather than calling it, exposing it and nailing it for what it is.

    When Labour win the next election, with or without the socialist Lib Dems, and this stupid country gets the government it deserves, Brown will re-emerge like the fat ghost at the feast and start throwing his weight around again. He’ll be cheered as the saviour of the world in cahoots with his geeky communist protégé and truth will get buried ever more deeply.

  • Alan Eastwood

    I deplore this politically driven ‘campaign’ and this piece by Christian Guy.
    However, as a fully paid up member of the Genghis Khan club, we should not close our eyes and ears to the fact that we do have a great many children who are disadvantaged and do live in poverty. They are not all in the ghetto’s but in lovely area’s of our country. I know that in the South West it is a problem.
    The scandal is that this government has forgotten that ‘charity begins at home’ and is still sending millions of pounds to assist the Indian Space Project and ensure that Mercedes sells more cars to corrupt officials in other places. I do hope Ms Greening gets a real grip on this total waste of our money.

    • telemachus

      Our stock in the world was immeasurably enhanced by Andrew Mitchell
      Let not his successor spoil

    • Iain Hill

      Why focus on payments to other countries? The huge handouts to bankers would deal with these problems. Recoup the lot!

  • Archimedes

    Unfortunately we’re a little further back than your suggested starting points would allow for. They are all concerned with morals, and so the affirmation of the importance of morals perhaps needs to be the starting point, as it was morals, as an aspirational system of values, that were broken – aspirational being the operative.

  • UlyssesReturns

    As you say, Save the Children’s recently appointed CEO is Justin Forsyth, a former spin-doctor for Gordon Brown. This is a cynical, politically motivated exercise and even the ad campaign used actors. We live in a rich country and I would suggest if people are poor it is because the majority have only themselves, and labour’s shameless creation of a client welfare state, to blame. I see fat idle stupid people everywhere in England nowadays, all voting in the politicians who will keep them in fags, drugs, Sky TV and mobility scooters – truly the underserving poor squandering the wealth that could be used to eradicate actual child poverty and to assist those in real need.

    • telemachus

      Justin was a quatum leap more honest than Coulson

      • Procrustes

        and a further quantum leap more intelligent than your ramblings

  • Radford_NG

    5 Sept. c.11.10pm. BST…..Today I stumbled on an item about poverty.It spoke of the cycle of poverty ; the poverty line ; workers earning less then they could get on benefit ; the lack of cheap housing….BUT : this is a summary of a documentary made in 1969.

  • Tory U turn

    What a bitter piece of journalism!
    When people need it most kick them more. Not all people in poverty are drug users, in fact most are probably not.

    “Such a simplistic approach fails because it takes no account of the many damaging social problems that cause low income – such as family instability and breakdown, educational failure, drug and alcohol addiction or mental ill-health. ”
    This is simply not true, it is the other way around. Societies with less inequality usually have lower levels of all these. They are not causes of poverty, they are products of poverty. Inequality and social mobility are more likely causes of poverty in the UK.

    A charity would not choose to bring its cause to the UK if there was not a problem here they believed needed help as it would simply divert scarce resources. They should be applauded not picked at.

    You can argue about giving those ambition to succeed all you like, but then you miss the bigger picture society faces. Those on minimum wage, even two parents working full time can no longer afford to bring up a child without the child being in relative poverty, which only feeds the situation. Also “delivering inspirational education for children in the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods should be our starting point” this is ambitious if the state is going to reduce the money spent on education. Children in poverty have to fight hard to get near the rungs on the ladder without it being drawn away from them.

    • Fergus Pickering

      No. They should be picked at, not applauded. This is a political stunt, no more. Are you really saying that child poverty in Britain is comparable to that on the Indian streets, or that among starving families in various parts of Africa? No, you are not really saying that. You are just maundering on. If I had ever been tempted to give to this charity I would have changed my mind now.

      • Coffeehousewall

        This is part of the virtual world that Mr Alexander Boot describes so eloquently. Relative poverty has no relation to reality at all. If everyone in Britain earned millions there would still be the same levels of poverty based on the ideologically based measure of relative poverty.

        The intention is both to provide these ‘charities’ with a lucrative income, and to aid the totalitarian ambitions of the state where all income belongs to the state so that it can be ‘distributed fairly’ to ‘eliminate poverty’.

        As has been said, real poverty exists where people are starving to death. But even in these cases the virtual world presents it as OUR fault rather than the fault of corrupt African governments. And once again, the only solution presented is to take more of our money and give it to other people.

        This is nothing to do with charity and everything to do with the total control of the state. This is why £19 billion will be given to corrupt Governments each year, even though Africans recognise that this sort of aid corrupts and creates dependency. It is supposed to of course. We are all to become dependent on an every increasing state, which is already unsatisfied with the national stage.

      • Tory U turn

        All a political stunt? That’s a bit paranoid don’t you think? It might have a hint of politics at best.

        Being tempted to give to charity and now not. It’s like me saying I was thinking of giving money to elizabeths legacy of hope until I realised Samantha Cameron got involved with them and then I realised it was all just a cynical right wing stunt to increase private healthcare through prosthetic limbs in Africa. Which would just be silly. What does it matter the charity if you do not believe in the cause. Poverty comes in many forms, many on the right are calling for foreign aid to be withdrawn completely; it doesn’t matter how poor you are or where just help your self, seems to be the attitude.

        I also mean, it’s not as if the conservative prime ministers wife is actually an ambassador for the save the children or anything. I do not yet see Samantha Cameron distancing her self from the charity or coming out and claiming this is all politics, do you?

        A political stunt must also mean that all those charities who release similar statistics and currently work in the UK must be in on it. The staff who have worked at the charity pre Justin Forsyth are also in on it, most of them are probably ardent Brownites. I’m yet to see any of them who choose to work for charity standing out and claiming this is all just a political move and they are against it either.

        This article doesn’t even go as far to claim that, it just states they have their priorities wrong with what they focus on. It doesn’t deny child poverty in the UK and is probably why the spectator has its own report on it..

    • james102

      “A charity would not choose to bring its cause to the UK if
      there was not a problem here…”

      Yes they would if they were making a political point.
      Relative poverty, like the fallacy of equal outcomes, is an Emperor’s clothes
      debate where few people are prepared to say it is nonsense.

      There is real poverty in the third world and was in the
      tenements of our cities and rural villages in the early 20th century
      but not being able to afford a holiday or some of the electronic gadgets we
      love is not poverty, it is being poor.

      • Dimoto

        Another “charity” which spends millions on TV ads, has decided to drop the pretence and “out” itself as a political lobby group.
        More transparency has got to be good.

      • Dimoto

        Another “charity” which spends millions on TV ads, has decided to drop the pretence and “out” itself as a political lobby group.
        More transparency has got to be good.

      • Tory U turn

        Yesterday the Telegraph of all things reported two fulltime working parents can only afford 82% of the basic costs for two children (including benefits). Some primarily on benefits are worse off and if they are not already will definitely be so soon. I really do fail to see where they get the money for electronic gadgets or holidays from. Get in into the real world will you.

        I take it the rise in homeless families is also due to the fact many of them have taken too many holidays?

        • Marcus

          “A charity would not choose to bring its cause to the UK if
          there was not a problem here…”
          Yes, a British campaign is more likely to raise more money as it is closer to home. That is very obvious. It is also logistically cheaper so has a lower overheads and more profit.
          Not complicated stuff.

          • Tory U turn

            Thanks for your input, shame you completely missed the point.

            • Marcus

              ‘…it would simply divert scarce resources’ (sic). Was your point.
              However there are many reasons Save the Children would start a British campaign:
              1. The political conspiracy theory, as mentioned above.
              2. The two reasons I gave.

              Look at Cats home charities, they do a lot of work over here, but any trip abroad reveals the problem is far worse elsewhere. People tend not to give to foreign cats homes, they like English ones, so Cat charities pitch for that market.
              Fewer overheads, the results are more palpable/visible for the donor (apply to Save the children if you like) and people are nationalistic about which cats they like supporting, perhaps as they have more empathy/sympathy for British cats.
              Perhaps children’s charities may also experience that greater sense of empathy for intra national children and find more money is given to home grown problems.

              The desperate problems in the Sudan of poverty and hunger have been largely static for the last 30 years, not so in England, as we have spent more and more money on welfare. However Save the children have suddenly decided that child poverty in the UK has fallen relative to the third world and so has nobly decided to set up here? You believe that?
              Of course you don’t. Their reasons are at best mercenary and at worst political.

    • DGStuart

      Does anybody know what salary Gordon Brown’s ex catamite is on?

  • ChrisTavareIsMyIdol

    The fact is that to “catch” every possible set of situations the benefit system has to be incredibly complex and far easier to fiddle and for people to get more than is fair. As for tax credits they are fundamentally unfair, they take from those who’ve achieved and worked hard and give to those who have not – the message being “sit back, the state will do it for you”

  • 2trueblue

    Interesting that child poverty grew during the Labour reign of 13yrs. I find the measures used to gauge what poverty is, and relative poverty is not something I grasp.

    We had real problems during the 13yrs when the country was doing well,yet teenage pregnancy grew, unemployment of the young grew, the figures were also skewed to make things look good.

    The real damage is done when poverty of aspiration is endemic amongst those who need it most, how to see a way out of it, and the opportunity to get started is what we need to establish in peoples lives. It is not all about the money. I remember someone demands their rights during a visit to the CAB. No one mentioned responsibilities. It is a mixture and we should be there to help people but can not do it for anyone, that is their task.

  • james102

    This on the day we hear about a baby killed by its drug
    addict parents when they gave him methadone to stop him crying. They had a cannabis
    factory in the flat so were unlikely to have been “poor” even relatively poor.

    Save the children?

    Luckily for the social workers concerned we do not expect
    the same personal responsibly we do from gas fitters or scaffolders so rather
    than manslaughter charges they just faced an “Inquiry”—paid by us taxpayers.

    Poverty takes many forms.

    • Hexhamgeezer

      Dont’ forget the ‘lessons learned’ from this, which are. as far as the ‘social’ ‘workers’ concerned are; make sure you get a good nights sleep before appearing in front of an enquiry. A weeks leave beforehand should accomplish that.

  • Coffeehousewall

    An interesting post. I agree entirely about the arbitrariness of the poverty debate in political circles. It is all just a game and unrelated to real life. I will certainly take a look at Breakthrough Britain and hope that it is offering some sound and reality based ideas and principles.