IN 2002, as leader of the Conservative party, Iain Duncan Smith visited Easterhouse in Glasgow and was shocked by the conditions he witnessed.
Soon he was giving speeches supporting a definition of poverty that would allow all to have "sufficient resources to participate in the life of the community".
A decade after this supposed Damascene conversion, Mr Duncan Smith, now the Coalition's Work and Pensions Secretary, is seeking to redefine poverty. In his speech yesterday, he claimed poverty was due less to a simple lack of money than a range of factors including family breakdown, debt, low educational attainment, drug and alcohol addiction and even child abuse.
It is true that household poverty is about more than money. The main official definition, which puts the poverty line at 60% of median income, can throw up odd quirks. As the minister observed, by that definition 300,000 children were lifted out of poverty last year because incomes in general fell faster.
What he failed to acknowledge was that this was due to a combination of inflation-linked benefit increases and a hangover from the previous government's reforms, which used tax credits and the national minimum wage to help the lowest paid. Moreover cuts in benefits, a change to the annual uprating that trails behind living costs and the freezing of child benefit under his Government are now pulling the rug from the poorest households. These cuts, alongside the atrophy of social services, will more than wipe out the supposed benefit to the poorest from the introduction next year of Universal Credit. The Independent Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that, even after that change, the number of children in poverty will rise by 800,000 by 2020 on the current trajectory.
The Coalition's cynical response is to change the definition of poverty. As John Dickie, head of the Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland, says: "Tinkering with measurements and definitions risks distraction from the urgent challenge ministers face in getting those policies right."
What is worse is the insidious way in which Mr Duncan Smith appears to blame the poor for their poverty. Family breakdown can happen to any family. The same applies to other social problems. As the minister knows, drug or alcohol-addicted parents account for just 4% of poor households.
Meanwhile the elephant in the room is the 62% of poor children who live in households where at least one parent works but cannot earn enough to live on. If Mr Duncan Smith wants to help them crawl across the breadline, he could do it by instituting the living wage, improving affordable childcare and investing in social housing.
In opposition, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats supported the current globally-recognised definition of child poverty and agreed to enshrine in law targets for tackling it. It is a vital tool in holding the Government to account. Poverty may be complicated, but family incomes do matter. Perhaps Mr Duncan Smith should consult the people of Easterhouse on his proposals. He would be well advised to wear a flak jacket.
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