How can devolution loosen the hold of child poverty in Wales?

Dr Steffan Evans is a Policy and Research Officer at the Bevan Foundation. Here he blogs about why 29% of children in Wales are still in poverty's grip, despite successive Welsh Governments trying to loosen it.

One of the flagship policy objectives of successive Welsh Governments over the period of devolution has been to loosen the grip of child poverty. Since the turn of the decade we’ve seen the enactment of Welsh legislation and the publication of various child-poverty strategies. Despite these actions and a stated ambition to end child poverty in Wales by 2020, 29% of children are still locked in poverty. Why is this?

Power devolved is power retained

The aim of ending child poverty by 2020 was always ambitious. With the UK Government retaining control over significant aspects of the key drivers of poverty, including significant powers over work and the social security system, loosening the grip of child poverty in Wales by 2020 was always an unrealistic ambition if the UK Government did not share the same commitment. There are things that could have been done differently closer to home, however.

Too focused on work?

In the twenty years since the opening of the National Assembly, much of the focus of attempts to unlock people from poverty have been on increasing employment. These measures alongside developments at UK level appear to have had some positive impact, with the historic gap between economic activity rates and employment rates in Wales and the rest of the UK having now disappeared. This improving picture has not fed into any significant reduction in both the number and proportion of people living in poverty, however.

One reason for this is that whilst being in work significantly reduces a person’s risk of being locked in poverty, it does not remove that risk completely. Most people who live in poverty in Wales live in households where at least one adult is in work: 64% of working age adults and 67% of children locked in poverty live in such households. It is perhaps fair to question whether the approach taken in Wales since devolution has been too focused on boosting employment without sufficient focus on the type and quality of work or on other issues that contribute to pulling people into poverty.

Lack of joined-up thinking

Not only could it be argued that Welsh Government policy has been too focused on increasing employment over the past two decades, it could also be argued that there have been too many occasions where policies have not been working in harmony. One of the key drivers of poverty are high living costs, especially housing costs. The continued commitment we have seen to boosting the supply of social housing in Wales over the era of devolution, be this through the abolition of the right to buy or through the Welsh Government’s more recent commitment to build 20,000 new affordable homes, is therefore to be welcomed.

Over the same period, however, the Welsh Government’s rent-setting mechanism has permitted social landlords to increase their rent above inflation, leading to social rent becoming increasingly unaffordable for thousands of families across Wales, undermining some of the potential benefits of the construction of new social housing. This was an issue discussed at the Bevan Foundation’s recent seminar on affordable rent with Shelter Cymru. Ensuring that social rents are affordable for all must underpin any rent-setting policy developed in the wake of the Independent Review of Affordable Housing if we are serious about loosening the grip of poverty in Wales.

A lack of ambition

Whilst the Welsh Government may have been guilty of being over ambitious in setting a target of ending child poverty by 2020, in other areas it has not been ambitious enough. An example of this can be found in the Welsh Government’s approach to holiday hunger. Thousands of children and their families are at a risk of holiday hunger despite the presence of good quality local schemes and the introduction of the School Holiday Enrichment Programme (SHEP), which is funded by the Welsh Government.

The Welsh Government’s approach to dealing with this problem has been wholly inadequate. In 2018, only 2,500 children received support through SHEP. In their 2019/20 budget the Welsh Government allocated an extra £0.4 million to SHEP, enough funds to support an extra 1,500 children. Whilst the support provided by SHEP is excellent, the number of children supported is tiny compared with the 76,200 who are eligible for free school meals and the additional 55,000 school-age children who live in poverty but who are not even eligible for free school meals. As we highlighted in our new report, Kids on the breadline: Solutions to holiday hunger, relatively modest investment could significantly increase the number of children who are helped.

Solving poverty in Wales

The failure to loosen the grip of poverty in Wales does not just have an impact on statistics, it has an impact in real life. Recent research carried out by the Children’s Commissioner for Wales found harrowing evidence of children in Wales going hungry, with one child reporting “I just had to starve until lunch time while everyone else could buy what they wanted”. This is why solving poverty matters.

There is clearly more that could be done in Wales to solve poverty. This must include strengthening social security so that it fulfils its purpose as a public service anchoring people who are struggling to get by. Recently the Bevan Foundation started work on a new project looking at the support schemes that are available for low-income families in Wales. We believe that this work could have a significant impact on how low-income families in Wales are supported. But it’s not just politicians who can help solve poverty. There are things that everyone in our society, from big business to community volunteers, can do to help end poverty. Working together is the key to unlocking thousands of people across Wales from poverty.