In seeking once again to blame the poor for poverty, UK work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith has implied that several children of members of the royal family may be poorer than many living on the breadline with parents earning the minimum wage.
Announcing that “poverty is about more than income alone”, he set out proposals to change the definition of child poverty to take in such factors as “worklessness, educational failure, family breakdown, problem debt and poor health”. This would make it harder to measure the harm caused by the Coalition’s much-criticised economic policies and harsh cuts.
It is indeed true that children’s quality of life is not solely determined by income. But it is absurd to stretch the definition of poverty to take in problems that also affect the better-off, and to imply that everyone plunged into poverty as a result of a global crisis caused largely by the actions of rich financiers, and worsened by ill-thought-out austerity measures, is to blame for their own plight.
“In a country as wealthy as the UK, it is an injustice that so many children remain trapped on the margins,” declared IDS, “growing up in dysfunctional families, characterised by multiple disadvantage.” If your employer goes bust or your rent doubles, in his topsy-turvy world this is a sign of family dysfunction, and what you need is not more money and a less unequal society but to break out of the “vicious cycle” in which you are supposedly trapped by your own weaknesses.
Of course, economic inequality can put a strain on family relationships and worsen health, but such factors are not in themselves markers of poverty. Famously, Prince William and Prince Harry experienced “family breakdown”, as did some of their cousins.
What is more, according to IDS, “The pound we earn is always more powerful than the pound we are given”, and it “matters whether parents have a real opportunity to become self-sufficient”. Presumably this puts the children of royals receiving large sums from the public purse at an even greater disadvantage.
Poverty is not the only form of hardship – but real hardship is involved. And it is not only material disadvantage but may also involve shame, especially when people on low incomes are stigmatised. Sections of the media are all too willing to back government ministers’ attacks on the poor, however lacking in reason and fairness.
The poor, like the better-off, can make costly mistakes. But rising food and fuel prices, lack of affordable housing, expensive childcare and economic instability mean that many families (however harmonious and hard-working) are struggling financially, and benefit and public service cuts are making matters worse. Some employers, even when profits are high, pay low wages. These factors blight children’s lives.
Tackling child poverty effectively requires greater social justice, not fudging the issue by using measures so wide as to be practically meaningless.
* The text of Iain Duncan-Smith's speech can be viewed here: http://www.dwp.gov.uk/newsroom/ministers-speeches/2012/15-11-12.shtml .
© Savi Hensman is a Christian commentator on religion and politics. She is an Ekklesia associate and works in the care and equalities sector.