Child poverty is a big issue in Wales, and reducing it is a huge challenge, says Michael Trickey.
In the May elections for the National Assembly for Wales, all political parties highlighted their commitment to the 2020 target for eradicating child poverty – although they may not all have agreed about the means.
But recent research about poverty and inequality in Wales, including two reports from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation this week, remind us just how big the challenge for Wales is going to be.
There is some good news in this week’s Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion in Wales 2011. Compared with ten years ago, the numbers of low-income pensioners, children and (with one important exception) adults has fallen.
The more worrying news is that half the improvement in the child poverty rate has been lost in the last five years. The number of low-income working-age adults without dependent children, of whom one- third are either disabled or have a disabled partner, has actually risen.
There are similarities with the messages in the Anatomy of Economic Inequality in Wales (May 2011), commissioned by the Equality & Human Rights Commission. Among other findings, this highlights disadvantage among disabled people and minority ethnic groups, and high levels of poverty among single-person households as well as single parents. The focus on poverty has to acknowledge the situation of many single and vulnerable adults.
The urgent debate we need is about what interventions by government and others, at the UK as well as Wales level, can make most difference – rather than whether the eradication target is achievable. Employment has traditionally been seen as the key. And here the news is also mixed. MPSE Wales 2011 shows a big, welcome rise in qualification levels among 25- to 44-year-olds over the last decade, and that those with higher qualifications are more likely to find employment. But in-work poverty is significant. Half the children in poverty in Wales are in working families. Pay and hours are crucial factors in tackling poverty, as well as skills, childcare, taxation, benefits and other issues. As other JRF research has shown, unless work offers a real route out of poverty, too many risk being caught in a low-pay, no-pay cycle.
This is confirmed in the latest JRF Minimum Income Standards report this week. It reveals a staggering increase of over 20 per cent over the last year in the income couples, and single parents with children paying for childcare, need in order to have an acceptable standard of living. Rising prices together with frozen or reduced in-work benefits are the main cause of this squeeze. Low-income families are particularly vulnerable, although the impact extends more widely.
Wales has the highest poverty ‘after housing costs’ poverty rate of the four UK countries. Against a background of sluggish growth, pay freezes, public spending cuts, and fundamental changes in the approach to welfare and tax, the battle against poverty in Wales is going to require a herculean, fully-integrated response from government at all levels, public services and the community as a whole.