Wales’ new child poverty strategy will make a difference – but it still needs more clout

With almost a third of children in poverty, Wales’ approach to tackling poverty must leave no stone unturned, says Frank Soodeen.

The UK has a mixed record when it comes to developing anti-poverty strategies. There is a lot to welcome in the Welsh Government’s new Child Poverty Strategy 2015 but still more to be done around the detail.

Following a lengthy consultation process, the writers of the new strategy have tried to build on their 2011 version – reiterating the ambition to eradicate child poverty by 2020 while seeking to reflect the developments since 2011, such as new Welsh legislation on housing and social care, new approaches to health practice and regeneration, and the impact of austerity and welfare reform.

Notably, the strategy reaffirms its commitment to a wider resources definition of poverty, acknowledging JRF’s argument that “the cost, availability and quality of essential goods and services also matters” and “a look at expenditure, as well as income, can help to better understand issues such as debt or the longevity of poverty”.

There are also, for the first time, objectives on in-work poverty and on household incomes, the latter bringing together action on the ‘poverty premium’, mitigating the impact of welfare reform and financial advice. The importance of engaging with the private sector is more fully recognised, as is the need to integrate action on poverty better with economic strategy, with the caveat that some of the main levers remain with the UK-wide government.

The strategy is open about the fact that more needs to be done to understand the relationship between the government’s preferred indicators (‘fewer children in workless households, supporting people into employment, supporting second earners into work, fewer young people who are not in education, employment or training, tackling health and educational inequalities and increasing the number of adults with basic skills) and the headline rate of child poverty. JRF is undertaking similar modelling work as part of its efforts to develop a comprehensive anti-poverty strategy.

A better understanding of how the key trends affect the headline rate will, in turn, inform the development of a series of interim outcomes and milestones. The government hopes these will galvanise further cross-departmental action – the strategy admits more of this is needed. Exactly how this is to be done is only partially set out. The strategy includes examples of action but this is only a beginning. The same applies to the renewed emphasis on issues such as childcare and food poverty.

A strong feature continues to be action on early years and education, although real progress on narrowing the attainment gap is proving much tougher than research might have indicated. Clearly this is not just a matter of new funding streams and programmes but about thinking through how a complex set of factors both inside and outside of the classroom coalesce.

The evaluation of the 2011 strategy referred to the challenge for the Welsh Government of achieving a scale of action that would make a big difference, given that the main fiscal and benefit levers lie elsewhere. This strategy reaffirms the commitment to a whole government response but is again also open about its limits. Whether it can make a real impact on the stubbornly high figure of 31 per cent of children in Wales in poverty will depend on detail yet to come as well as the quality and scale of implementation. But our research suggests that there is scope for meaningful action even within the limits of the current devolution framework and structural weaknesses in the Welsh labour market.

JRF is represented on the Welsh Government’s Tackling Poverty External Advisory Group. The 2015 Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion in Wales report will be published this autumn.