Coalition repeating Labour's mistakes on poverty

The Coalition Government is repeating the same mistakes as Labour on poverty reduction, according to a new report released today (1 December). The Joseph Rowntree Foundation's annual assessment of poverty in the UK warns that the Coalition does not have a comprehensive anti-poverty strategy, and relies too much on the tax and benefits system alone to encourage people into work, mistakes also made by Labour.

Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion 2011, by the New Policy Institute, calls for there to be a comprehensive anti-poverty strategy across all age groups. The Coalition, like Labour, has a strategy for child poverty only. This ignores the equally high level of poverty among young adults. It also ignores rising poverty among working-age adults without dependent children, which has risen by 1 million in the last decade.

The report finds that like Labour, the Coalition's policies rely too much on the tax and benefits system to encourage people into work. There is not enough emphasis on putting the creation of more and better jobs at the heart of anti-poverty policy. Millions more jobs are needed in the UK economy. Six million people were under-employed in the first half of 2011 – this includes people who are unemployed (2.5m), working part-time but wanting full-time work (1.2m), and those classed as economically inactive but wanting work (2.3m).

Other changes to Tax Credits now mean that an additional 1.4 million households lose over 70p for each extra £1 they earn. Although the report welcomes Universal Credit as a reform heading in the right direction, it still will not address problems with low paid, insecure and dead end jobs. Without solving these problems, poverty can never properly be tackled – over half of all children in poverty are living with a parent who already does paid work.

Report co-author Tom MacInnes commented: '"A conservative estimate is that the country lacks at least four million paid jobs. In this situation, reforms aimed at improving incentives to enter work will increase the number scrambling for vacancies whilst doing next to nothing to reduce poverty".

Other key findings of this year's report are:

  • In the year to 2009/10, the child poverty rate fell to 29%, the second fall in two years. Child poverty fell by around one-seventh under the previous Labour Government.
  • The proportion of households in fuel poverty has risen significantly since 2003. Almost all households in the bottom tenth by income are in fuel poverty, as are half of households in the second bottom tenth.
  • The pensioner poverty rate, at 16%, is now around half the rate it was in 1997.

Julia Unwin, Chief Executive of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said:

"Even though the names of the policies may have changed, the means by which the current Government aims to tackle poverty are very similar to those of the previous administration. Whilst we must retain the focus on child poverty, there are a number of areas that remain neglected. The high and rising rate of working-age childless adults in poverty reflects that narrow focus."

However, the report does contain some positive news: it shows continual improvement in health and education over the last 15 years:

  • gaps between educational attainment between pupils receiving free school meals and other students has decreased;
  • the rate of infant mortality has fallen; and
  • the number of under-17s committing a criminal offence has dropped.

Report co-author Dr. Peter Kenway added:

"While the report shows that poverty got no worse during the recession and its immediate aftermath, the effect of the cuts to social security are still to come. For the millions in this country whose backs are already to the wall, even small cuts are more than can be borne."

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