We argued yesterday that those losing out most during this pandemic are not those at the bottom of the poverty ladder, but those on the next rung up. These include a mass of the “just-about-managing”.
Since policy options are necessarily limited, whoever is in goverment, and demand trade-offs between different interests, it isn’t hard to see what the consequences will be when the pandemic abates – and are already.
In sum, the Government can’t avoid making choices that most help those who remain the poorest, or else those who have recently become poorer.
At the moment, it is unsure which to do. Explaining why this is so also explains why it is on the back foot against Marcus Rashford’s campaigning, and suggests a means of it getting back on the front foot.
New Labour’s original child poverty target in government was to reduce the number of children living in households with less than 60 per cent of median equivalised income.
This measure can have perverse outcomes: for example, if the average income goes up, but the incomes of people lower down the income scale stay as they were, then poverty will be officially recorded as having increased.
“Such a definition means there are more people in “poverty” now than in the 1970s despite decades of material progress,” our columnist, Neil O’Brien, argued in back in 2012 when he was heading up Policy Exchange.
He believed that Labour was conflating fighting poverty with boosting equality, and he was right. In 2015, that target was duly abolished.
Iain Duncan Smith, then Work and Pensions Secretary, wanted to replace it with a new measure – one that would, for example, assess whether poorer children were getting an improved education which would boost their life chances.
But there was none available at the time, so the Government settled for a new duty to report levels of educational attainment, worklessness and addiction.
Which brings us to his former Special Adviser, Philippa Stroud – now Chief Executive of the Legatum Institute, whose work underpinned our piece yesterday, and illustrates the choices that Boris Johnson must now make.
She believes that the Social Metrics Commission (SMC), which she helped to form after leaving government, has cracked the problem and found a definition that will work.
Were the Government to take it up, it would at least be clear what is trying to do when trying to help reduce poverty – which, as matters stand, it doesn’t.
This leaves it vulnerable to every lobby and interest group with its own definition, own campaign and own demand, which may once again seek to blur the difference between tackling poverty and equality.
Stroud has conceded on this site that some “will be nervous about a new measure of poverty, even one that has gained consensus across the political spectrum”.
That Ministers are apprehensive about giving their opponents a stick to beat them with explains the delay in taking up the SMC measure by developing experimental statistics.
But although they are damned if they do, they are also damned if they don’t – as we have seen. Rashford is moving on from free school meals, and is now tweeting about the forthcoming Universal Credit uplift decision.
Stroud pointed out that maintaining the uplift would assist those on the first rung up of the poverty ladder rather than those at the very bottom.
That might well be the right action to take – but is it where the Government wants to concentrate its anti-poverty efforts? What are the trade-offs?
Where else might the money go instead? For example, could it be used exclusively to help to get people into work rather than to assist some people who are already in it?
It’s true that if Ministers have a settled direction in which to steer their ship, those on board will inevitably complain about it. And the Treasury will want to muddle along.
But if they don’t, the passengers will effectively take control – shouting a mass of conflicting instructions, which those Ministers will then ignore, contradict and surrender to in conflicting measure (if Number Ten doesn’t do it for them).
This is bad for the Government, bad for the Conservative Party – and, above all, bad for those at the bottom end of the ladder, wherever they are situated on it. Stroud’s advice should be taken without further delay.