CHILD poverty is a touchy subject for governments, as it should be. The Last Labour government rather grandly promised to eradicate child poverty by 2020.
On one level, this could be dismissed as a bit of political grandstanding. How could such a social blight be ended by a certain date? Isn’t that a little like the minister for weather, if such a title existed, declaring that he planned to abolish rain by next April. Well, that analogy can only go so far. Rain falls on everyone, whereas poverty affects only the less fortunate.
Remember, too, that Gordon Brown, when chancellor, boasted about having ended “Tory boom and bust” – shortly before the biggest bust in memory.
So politicians do say these things, it’s what they do.
Yet child poverty did fall from 3.4 million to 2.3 million between 1998-99 and 2010-11. Now a report due tomorrow from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a body independent of political party, is said to suggest that such progress has been halted, with levels of child poverty rising to 2.6 million.
This is a sensitive topic for the new Tory government. So what is their first response? It is to say that we need to redefine poverty. The words jumped out from my Sunday newspaper and gave me a black eye. So here they are, but do watch your eyes: “The Conservative manifesto pledged to redefine child poverty.”
Now there are probably many shades to this, and I am sure that David Cameron has some emollient and meaningless words to hand to soothe the situation. He usually does. Here are some given to a newspaper today by his press spokesman, who said the prime ministers “wants the government to focus more on tackling the causes of the issues, rather than just treating the symptoms”.
You see, emollient and without meaning.
On learning about this tactic, it was hard not to feel a jolt. One interpretation of this strategy is simply this: child poverty is on the rise again, so we are going to redefine what it means to be poor – problem solved.
This handy technique could have many uses in politics and in life. The person caught speeding could say that they were redefining the speed limit and that they were within the new limit. Food manufacturers could redefine the size of a product while charging the same or even more for the “improvements”. Oh, sorry – that one happens already. And we could all stand on our bathroom scales and declare, on seeing evidence of rising weight, that we have redefined the personal obesity parameters.
All politicians have to rely on statistics to gauge poverty – or anything else – and statistics can be used in many ways. So there is always a margin for statistical massaging, but this use of “redefine” surely ought to worry us.
Ministers were said today to be remaining tight-lipped about the reported rise in child poverty. I bet they were. But through their tight lips they were no doubt mumbling about poverty being relative. And perhaps it is, but it’s rarely about the “relatives” in their case, is it?
Wealthy politicians wishing to redefine what it means to be poor sounds like an Orwellian joke, only it appears they are perfectly serious.