Income and Poverty

The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission have offered leadership: who will follow?

  • Published: Oct 20, 2014
  • Author: Peter Kenway
  • Category: Income and Poverty

Today’s State of the Nation Report by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission has the potential to be the most important official statement on child poverty since Tony Blair’s pledge, 15 years ago, to abolish it altogether within a generation. Whether the report realises that potential depends not on its authors, but on how both anti-poverty campaigners and the institutions identified in the report react. In particular, can the six policy objectives set out in the report serve as common ground on which those committed to ending child poverty can gather?


Three things are striking about the objectives. The first is how limited a role they imply for tax and benefits. Although clearly implicated in the second of the six (about where the burden of future cuts should, or should not, fall), this is chiefly defensive and in no way related to the zealous belief in the miraculous healing properties of either tax credits (Labour) or welfare reform (the Coalition).

The second is how they shift responsibility from the poor to the powerful. Whether in its Labour or Coalition guise, welfare reform boils down to a story about “poor people” and their interaction with the state.  The Commission looks elsewhere. By insisting upon a new priority for macroeconomic policy, it is challenging the priorities of the most powerful government department. By calling for a change in the recruitment practices of the universities and professions, it is challenging institutions which, in its own phrase, are at the “top of British society”.

The third is that by tying social mobility to child poverty, the Commission is trying to repair the damaging breach that used to occur when a person reached either the age of 16 or 18. Below the magic age, that person was a child, often idealised; above it, a “youth” (even men and women of 24), ignored at best, demonised at worst. Here, for the first time, a framework for addressing child poverty is extended to talk about generation rent. Whether this works remains to be seen, but such an extension is no more than a due recognition of the fact that a child under ten when Blair made his pledge is now a young adult under 25.

Of course the objectives do not map out a comprehensive anti-poverty plan. Neither pensioners, nor those in older working age, nor those with disabilities, are covered by much of what is here. Specific proposals or analyses can also be doubted, for example, the assertion that “effective parenting has a bigger influence on a child’s life than wealth, class or education”. But disagreement here, even strong, doesn’t prevent all important agreement about ends.

As former MPs, the Commission’s chair and deputy, Alan Milburn and Gillian Shepherd, have none of the executive power that Tony Blair had back in 1999. But Blair’s pledge was a commitment for government: everything, right down to the policies pursued by Duncan Smith and Freud, are a consequence. Milburn and Shepherd have done something different: they have offered leadership. We think they should be followed.

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