27 March 2007

Relative Poverty Isn't Absolute

News that the number of children living in relative poverty in the UK rose by 200,000 last year re-opens last November's Polly Toynbee vs. Churchill debate.

Just this morning David Willetts was pointing out on the Today programme that the number of people living on less than 40% of average income had increased under Labour. Now we learn that even by the Government's standard of relative poverty – people living in homes on less than 60% of average income net of housing costs – more children are worse off now than they were a year ago. And all this at a time when the country is supposedly still enjoying "the longest period of economic growth" [just don't mention the increase in repossessions, bankruptcies and job losses, the fact that social mobility in Britain has declined over the last decade, or the increase in number of young people not involved in education, employment or training...]

However, although this increase casts doubt on the government's target of halving child poverty by 2010, by the very definition of relative poverty there will always be poverty. The more significant question, as Willetts tried to raise this morning, is not whether everyone has equal wealth, but whether everyone enjoys equality of opportunity. That surely is the definition of true poverty in modern, twenty-first-century Britain. As George Osborne says, what today's figures show is that the country needs a new approach "based on social responsibility so that, alongside financial support through tax credits, it can focus on tackling broken communities, poor skills and family breakdown."


Barnardo's said...

This is a moral disgrace. In 1999, we were all excited by the Government's determination to eradicate child poverty and, on the way, to halve it by 2010. It is now clear that what they meant was that they intended, not to halve child poverty by 2010, but to reduce it a bit. (So says Martin Narey, chief executive of Children's charity Barnardo's)

A Secular Conservative said...

As The Secular Conservative states in his list of seven principles of conservatism:

#1 Equality of opportunity

Civil liberties must be upheld to the degree that equal opportunity is provided to everyone

In a free society, equality for all is difficult to achieve except in the sense of equality of opportunity; equality of outcome cannot be achieved. The best that we can hope for is a just and free society where some evils and suffering will inevitably exist. Equality of opportunity does not guarantee success; individuals must accept responsibility for their own success and failure.

It is wrong to restrict the freedom of some to provide equality of outcome to others. The principle of equality should not impinge on freedom; freedom is more important than equality. Interference by government will limit the potential of the individual; rational individuals know their own best interests. The government’s role is to create equality of opportunity by eliminating restrictions, not by creating new restrictions that favor those deemed to have less opportunity.

James said...

"Direct and indirect taxes have increased in real terms since 1997, affecting poorer households the most, and disproportionately so because indirect taxes represent a higher proportion of income for those on low and fixed incomes.

If relative poverty is to be tackled at all then it can only be done by raising the personal allowance to more like £10,000 such that even those on the minimum wage pay a very much smaller amount in direct income taxation. If that does not happen, then the number of people in relative, and real, poverty will increase."

Part of a letter in today's Times.