Cutting universal credit uplift is emblematic of a failure to take child poverty seriously
Despite protestations that reducing child poverty is a priority and despite all the talk of levelling up, there is no child poverty strategy worthy of the name.
Marcus Rashford has once again shown up the government’s failure on the child poverty front.
First, he twice achieved an extension of free school meals. Now, he has drawn attention to the failure of the Healthy Start scheme to reach two fifths or more of those eligible, in an open letter to health professionals, asking them to help publicise the scheme. But, as Rashford has acknowledged, problems associated with child food poverty and insecurity cannot be divorced from the underlying issue of child poverty itself.
Not only have the numbers of children living in poverty been increasing once more to nearly a third of all children, erasing most of the progress made under Labour, but the depth of that poverty has also grown.
A key driver in the worsening of child poverty has been the “massive” social security cuts (as described by Lord Freud, an architect of universal credit (UC)) since 2010. The welcome £20 uplift in UC early in the pandemic was tacit acknowledgement that its level is simply too low for a decent life.
The uplift’s impact was diminished due to the refusal to extend it to legacy and related benefits – hurting disabled people in particular – and to suspend or even modify the benefit cap, which limited or extinguished the gain for some families.
Increasingly paid work is not providing an insurance against poverty
The failure to make any real increase to children’s benefits meant that the larger the family the further the £20 had to stretch, especially in the growing number of families subject to the two-child limit. And the £20 only went so far in redressing all those “massive” cuts. So, welcome as the £20 has been, there is accumulating evidence from research and organisations on the ground that families have still been struggling.
It is therefore perhaps not surprising that there is growing pressure from across the political spectrum (including a galaxy of former Conservative Work & Pensions secretaries) and the UK to retain the uplift.
What is shocking is that the government appear to have decided to end it this Autumn without any assessment of the likely impact on child poverty. This is despite the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s estimation that it will throw a further 200,000 children into poverty. The impact of withdrawing the £20 uplift on the depth of poverty is likely to be even greater as many of those hit will already be counted as poor. Moreover, the cut will coincide with a huge hike in fuel prices.
Ministers seek to justify the withdrawal of the £20 on the grounds that the priority now must be to get people back into work and into higher paid jobs. But this ignores the fact that over a third of UC recipients are already in paid work and that increasingly paid work is not providing an insurance against poverty, as a growing proportion of children in poverty have at least one working parent.
While improving access to better paid work is an admirable aspiration, it will not be achieved overnight. It also needs to be remembered that hardship can undermine job-seeking efforts when a UC recipient’s energies are depleted by the exhausting struggle to get by on an inadequate income. Moreover, about a fifth of UC recipients are not required to seek work.
Retention of the £20 uplift would only go so far in alleviating child poverty. But failure to do so would be emblematic of a failure to take it seriously.
Despite protestations that reducing child poverty is a priority and despite all the talk of levelling up, there is no child poverty strategy worthy of the name. If the government are serious about levelling up, a coherent, ambitious cross-departmental child poverty strategy has to be a key component of their plans.
Baroness Lister is a Labour peer.
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