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IDS is working to tackle real poverty, not just Gordon Brown’s idea of it

By Peter Hoskin
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What’s in a definition? An awful lot, particularly when it comes to child poverty in this country. The last Labour government defined a poor child as one living in a household earning less than 60 per cent of the national median income; and they had a target to raise all such children out of poverty by 2020. But, in practice, this just meant flushing cash—via benefits and tax credits—towards those just below the boundary to take them just above it, while thousands were left languishing in more severe poverty. A narrow definition, and the target that followed on from it, led to narrow results.

Thankfully—urged on my think-tanks such as the Centre for Social Justice and Policy Exchange—this Government is taking a broader approach to poverty and the combatting of it. The report that they commissioned from Frank Field in 2010 is a case in point. Its central proposal was that policymakers should focus on improving opportunities for poorer children, particularly those between the ages of 0 and 5. But its wider point was that it takes more than money to alleviate poverty. Everything from schooling to breast-feeding might be taken into consideration.

I mention all this because Iain Duncan Smith—who has long advocated a more holistic approach to child poverty—is giving a speech on the subject today. When it comes to a new definition of child poverty, he’s expected to say, “I believe that we need to focus on life change so that families are able to sustain the improvement in their lives beyond government money.” And he will go on to highlight the case of parents with drink and drug problems:

“For a poor family where the parents are suffering from addiction, giving them an extra pound in benefits might officially move them over the poverty line. But increased income from welfare transfers will not address the reason they find themselves in difficulty in the first place.

Worse still, if it does little more than feed the parents’ addiction, it may leave the family more dependent not less resulting in poor social outcomes and still deeper entrenchment. What such a family needs is that we treat the cause of their hardship – drug addiction itself.”

Hence why the Government is preparing new back-to-work programmes to help those struggling with addictions. Mr Duncan Smith may well talk more about these today.

Campaigners are already saying that IDS is missing the point; that only “7 per cent of those on benefits are problem drug users” – but this charge seems to miss the point itself. The minister is arguing that, when it comes to poverty, various factors should be taken into account. As the Daily Mail’s write-up of today’s speech puts it, “he will suggest broader ways of calculating child poverty – including whether or not parents are in work, educational failure, family breakdown, problem debt, gambling and poor health”. All of these things—and more—contribute towards poverty, not just any one of them.

This is important ground for the Tories, but precarious too. IDS’s colleagues should avoid tarnishing his moral mission with the sort of unforgiving rhetoric that predominated during the recent debate over benefit uprating. Far better was David Cameron’s speech to the party conference in 2009. “It falls to us,” he said then, “to fight for the poor who [Labour] have let down.” That fight is escalated today.


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