Last week, I commented on an article on fuel poverty by John Osmond on ClickonWales which made for gloomy reading. John concluded, and I agreed with him, that it is highly improbable that the governments in Cardiff and London will achieve their targets to eliminate either fuel poverty or child poverty.
Yesterday saw the publication of a report by Save the Children, which drew attention to the very fact that John’s article talked about – the need to address the question of ‘severe’ poverty, rather than just respond to a target for reduction in the numbers of people in poverty.
The reactions of politicians were, I suppose, predictable, if rather less than entirely honest in some cases. For Labour, Huw Lewis criticised the Westminster coalition for putting further pressure on families with low incomes, and vigorously defended the Welsh Government’s record.
The opposition parties in Cardiff both saw an opportunity to attack the Labour-Plaid government, with the Tory calling it “a betrayal of the people of Wales” and the Lib Dem talking about “the lack of action and firm commitment from the Labour- Plaid Government”. But what would they actually do themselves? The policies being pursued by their parties will, on the whole, make things worse, not better.
The official response from the Welsh Government seemed pretty complacent to me, merely rattling off the usual platitudes about there being “no higher priority for us than ensuring that children and young people whose lives are blighted by poverty have the same life chances and opportunities as their more affluent peers”. Well, maybe – but I’m certain that the ‘spokesman’ knows as well as I do that the targets will not be met.
It’s not that the intentions are not good. I do not doubt for one moment the absolute sincerity of the One Wales partners in wanting to address the issue. Nor is it the case that they have not put a lot of effort into developing a detailed strategy setting out their approach to dealing with the issue (although this may be one of those instances where Carwyn Jones’ reference to the Assembly Government as a ‘strategy factory’ will come back to haunt him).
No, the problem is that the strategy set out cannot and will not eliminate child poverty in Wales, and the politicians are unable or unwilling to accept that, let alone start talking seriously about the changes that are needed if we really want to eliminate poverty.
In fairness, when looked at more closely, although the strategy says that it “aims to eradicate child poverty by 2020”, eliminating poverty isn’t really what the actions detailed in the strategy will achieve. They are, rather, about ensuring that “no child or young person is disadvantaged by poverty”. It may sound like the same thing, but it really isn’t – it is about dealing with and trying to ameliorate the outcomes of poverty, not the poverty itself.
That’s a more limited aim, albeit a worthy one in itself, and it is a more realistic aim – but it means that the programme of interventions must, of necessity, be open-ended in order to deal with each new generation’s problems. Against any absolute indicator of poverty, eradication is achievable; the inclusion of relative definitions as well makes it impossible without far more radical action.
Part of the reason for that is that there are unstated underlying assumptions in the strategy. They include the assumptions that economic growth will provide extra wealth, and that that extra wealth will be shared in such a way as to “lift families out of poverty”. In reality, even if the government is successful in creating extra wealth (and there are limits to growth in any event), that extra wealth will also increase the average level of earnings – thereby moving the goalposts for any relative definition.
Any serious attempt to eradicate poverty and inequality has to start by recognising the need for a redistributive approach, and at present, we’re just not seeing that recognition. There’s nothing in the strategy with which I would particularly choose to disagree – but we shouldn’t delude ourselves about what it can, realistically, achieve.