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Last Updated: Monday, 22 October 2007, 11:16 GMT 12:16 UK
Fears over child poverty target
By Kim Catcheside
Social affairs correspondent, BBC News

Child poverty generic
More than a million children still need to be helped to meet targets
Back in 1999 the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, promised to halve the number of poor children in 10 years and to eradicate child poverty in 20 years.

It was hugely ambitious, but in the glow of the new Labour government's extended honeymoon it seemed somehow to be possible.

Now disillusioned anti-poverty campaigners are asking if the government is still serious about its promise.

"We want to believe", says the chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, Kate Green.

"But on the current rates of spending on tax credits and benefits there's no way the government is going to halve child poverty by the end of the decade."

Child poverty graph

The logic of the figures is pitiless.

To halve child poverty by 2010, more than a million children will have to be lifted across the poverty line in the next three years.

But spending on tax credits and help for lone parents announced in the Budget and in the pre-Budget report will help only 300,000 of that total.

Last chance

Time is running out to get the government back on track.

The director of welfare research at the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), Mike Brewer, calculates that the chancellor has got to add another 3.5bn-4bn a year to tax credits to halve child poverty.

"The absolute last chance to find that money is the pre-Budget report of 2009," he says.

"The plan must be to hope that the public finances get better. But my colleagues at the IFS think that the chancellor's predictions for the public finances are already too optimistic."

Household income less than 60% of median for similar households
Couple with two children - net income less than 332pw before housing costs
Lone parent with one child - net income less than 217pw before housing costs
Source: DWP

Despite the stark figures, the government is sticking to its guns.

Work and Pensions secretary Peter Hain said a "huge amount" of success had already been achieved, with 600,000 children lifted out of poverty over the last decade.

But he admitted more needed to be done to reach the government's "ambitious goal".

"At the pre-budget report the government committed to helping a further 100,000 children directly through increases to the children's tax credit and to the child maintenance disregard," he said.

"I also believe that work represents the best route out of poverty and I am committed to helping more lone parents and people who have previously struggled to find jobs to get back into work."

He added that increasing the numbers of single parents in work would alone lift another 200,000 children out of poverty.

Official statistics define children in poverty as those in households whiose income is less than 60% of the median for similar households.

Median income is the level with half the total number of households above it, and half below.

It is important children can see the benefits of work and break the cycle of worklessness that still blights too many lives
Peter Hain, work and pensions secretary

Lisa Harker, the government's former poverty tsar and now co-director of the Institute for Public Policy Research notes: "There's a rhetoric reality gap in government."

Donald Hirsch, author of several reports on child poverty for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, speculates that at some point ministers are going to have to admit the 2010 target is going to be missed.

He is worried about what might happen to anti-poverty policies after that.

Long grass

Crudely speaking, there is a two legged strategy at the moment.

The first is to raise the incomes of the poor by raising tax credits and that involves large amounts of public spending.

The second is a more multifaceted approach.

This includes measures to get people off welfare and into work, raising skills and closing the education achievement gap between poor children and their peers.

Ministers hope much of this could be achieved by reprioritising current spending.

Mr Hain said the combination of helping people into work and targeting help where it is needed will help the government reach its goal of ending child poverty.

"We know that children in households where no one works are up to seven-and-a-half times more likely to be living in poverty," he added.

"So it is important that children can see the benefits of work and aspire to a life in work and break the cycle of worklessness that still blights too many lives."

Donald Hirsch says: "My fear is that they will abandon trying to raise the incomes of the poor and concentrate on longer term initiatives to narrow the education gap between rich and poor and widen opportunities."

Political urgency

Would there be a political penalty for failing to meet child poverty targets?

John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, says "missing the targets would only matter if it were part of a wider picture including failings in the economy; a rise in house repossessions for instance".

On Wednesday, Tory leader David Cameron started to create the mood music for that scenario.

He criticised Gordon Brown's performance on child poverty promising that the Tories would be the ones to make poverty history.

Kate Green and Lisa Harker agree this creates a new political urgency for Mr Brown.

Lisa Harker says: "The way to differentiate Labour from the Tories is to deliver on child poverty."

Kate Green adds: "It's not enough to have aspirations - you have to meet them too."

UK income graph

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12 Sep 07 |  Education
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09 Sep 07 |  UK Politics

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