The government’s poverty czar, the Labour MP Frank Field, has issued a report into child poverty and what to do about it. Child poverty is still with us, despite all the money that Labour governments threw at it — about £134 billion since 1999. Labour had to admit last January that its promise to end child poverty by 2020 could not possibly be met.
As Iain Duncan Smith has said: “The UK spends more public money on children than most other advanced countries and gets some of the worst results.” Severe child poverty has actually been increasing; 1 in 8 children in Britain now lives in severe poverty. All in all, Labour failed to identify the long-term causes of chronic poverty, simply throwing more and more money after less and less success.
So Field has been considering a different approach, one which he claims will challenge some of the “1940s welfare state sacred cows”.
His view is that the cure for the cycles of poverty is not simply more money. It is to address the other kinds of deprivation in the poorest children’s lives; because of their parents’ inattention or ignorance, such children are talk-poor, story-poor, word-poor and play-poor. They’ve been taught next to nothing about manners or self-discipline or even sitting quietly to eat a family meal.
Recently it has begun to be understood how important this kind of poverty truly is. It’s not an exaggeration to say that it stunts the developing brain, which has mostly been formed by the age of three.
As Nick Clegg pointed out recently, children from poor homes hear 616 words spoken an hour, on average, compared to 2,153 words an hour in richer homes. By the age of three, that amounts to a cumulative gap of 30m words, an insuperable disadvantage in developing language and thought or that articulate confidence of children from talk-rich homes.
By age five, when children arrive at nursery school, it is almost too late to rescue the deprived ones emotionally and intellectually; each year the gap between their achievements and those of luckier children grows wider and wider. It is meaningless to talk of equal opportunities for such children; they have not developed the ability to grasp them.
Their life chances have been blighted in their infancy and not primarily because of their parents’ poverty. Their parents’ poor parenting matters more than poverty, according to Field and many others, which is anathema to the old left. An obvious proof of this is that some poor children here, such as the Chinese, do outstandingly well at school. Poor parents can be very good parents, if they know how or are taught how.
That’s why Field has proposed his alarmingly named life-chance indicators for testing children’s cognitive, emotional and physical progress every year.
These tests would also be used to test whether disparities between the poorest children and the rest were being reduced; service providers would be judged on this, although it is hard to imagine how. All this would be part of a new foundation years scheme from womb to the age of five, placing heavy emphasis on these crucial years on how to be a good parent.
There would be parenting classes throughout school life, a rationalisation of children’s services and much greater outreach to the families, with many more healthcare visitors, which the coalition has already promised to do by providing 4,200 extra Sure Start health visitors. The Sure Start scheme for early years education would still be used but would have to be radically reformed and “turned upside down”.
All this sounds very reasonable. It’s true that Labour’s materialist obsession with public money as a panacea is an old Labour sacred cow. As far as poverty goes, it’s true that Labour wasn’t working. Nor was Sure Start, which David Blunkett set up; it was hugely expensive and ineffective and if it is to be preserved at all it desperately needs a serious change. But none of this strikes me as particularly new, or particularly radical. There is a real danger that Field’s proposals will lead to more of the same because the thinking behind them is not very different.
What was wrong with Sure Start was that it was based on a muddle. It was supposed to be aimed at the most deprived children and the Sure Start centres were set up in deprived areas. But the old Labour obsession with stigma — the idea that people would be stigmatised by being singled out as problem families — married up with the old Labour obsession with universality, the idea that giving it all to everyone in the name of equality would avoid stigma. But quite clearly you cannot target the neediest, to raise them out of poverty, while at the same time refusing to target anyone at all because it’s stigmatising.
What happened was that all the lovely Sure Start centres and all their lovely free services for children and families were colonised by middle-class mothers living in inner-city areas close to the poor neighbourhoods, who began to feel entitled to it. Meanwhile, the neediest mothers didn’t visit the centres at all, partly because they felt ill at ease, or feared officialdom, or wanted to disguise some welfare scam. Personal outreach to these mothers in their homes largely failed, partly because there was and is a serious shortage of health visitors.
Field seems to have inherited this muddle. In his report he says Sure Start must return to its original vision of providing the greatest help to the most disadvantaged. But later, almost to contradict himself, he says the danger in Sure Start returning to its original purpose is that it might no longer be seen as a “non-stigmatising universal service”. Therefore all families should be drawn in. You just cannot have it both ways.
For one thing, providing the middle classes with services they don’t urgently need, or dreaming up events and ceremonies they might like, to draw them in, would be hugely expensive and bureaucratic, just as it has been until now.
And it sounds like the old statist, egalitarian mentality. As Field says more than once, the purpose of his report and his proposals is greater equality, “to change over the longer terms the distribution of income”. Lifting children out of poverty to much greater life chances is one thing, and obviously good in itself, in so far as it can be done. Doing so in order to change the distribution of income is quite another and it sounds to me exactly like “a 1940s welfare state sacred cow”. Something much more radical is needed.