Another year, another set of disappointing child poverty figures. This is the third year in a row that ministers have had to admit that they have failed yet again to make any headway on achieving their goal of halving child poverty by 2010. To be fair, yesterday's statistics show no change, compared with increases in poverty rates in the last two years. But that is not much cause for relief when government looks set to miss its self-imposed target by 600,000 children next year. In fact, the government has essentially given up on the 2010 goal, with ministers all but admitting this is one target they are prepared to miss. They are now focusing exclusively on the bigger (and more distant) goal of ending child poverty altogether by 2020. Last month's budget, the last one that will make any difference to the 2010 poverty figures, allocated a paltry £200m to child poverty measures, compared to the £4.2bn that campaigners say was required. The job creation programme announced in the budget will help some struggling families, but is unlikely to make much difference to the 2010 target.
Clearly, finances were tight in this budget and Alistair Darling had no extra cash for child poverty. But we should never have got into a situation where we needed £4bn in one budget – government should have been making sustained investment every year, with a final push this year. Labour's failure on the 2010 goal shows what happens when historic pledges are not backed up by real investment. Ending child poverty by 2020 is the right long-term vision, but in practice, Labour has now almost certainly missed the first two milestones along the way – to reduce child poverty by a quarter by 2005 and halve it by 2010. The fact that it has failed to make sustained progress on the scale required raises questions about the point of the longer-term goal. And every year of stalled progress means hundreds of thousands of children living with the everyday realities of poverty.
Targets can be crucial for catalysing action and investment in Whitehall but they can distort priorities and reduce complex social issues to simple statistics. Shifting a child over the poverty line is not a miracle cure and there is a danger that by focusing on a simple target we forget what poverty actually means for the millions of poor children in this country – no holidays, meals skipped, the stress of parents struggling to cope rubbing off on anxious children. This is perhaps Labour's biggest failure – to convince the public that child poverty is something worth caring about. Despite the boldness of the original pledge, and significant progress up to 2004, Labour has never found a way of getting the public to buy into the goal of ending child poverty within a generation. The idea of child poverty in the UK remains an oxymoron for most people and there is no consensus about the concept of relative poverty. This lack of resonance makes it easier for government to dismiss the lobbying of child poverty campaigners, particularly when public finances are stretched.
Everyone who is concerned about child poverty must urgently find new ways of talking about poverty and inequality that engage voters, parents and people working with families and children. At a political level, the major parties need to reassert their commitment to the 2020 goal – and show us how they intend to get there. The Conservatives have said that the 2020 target would be an aspiration if they were in government, but they need to demonstrate that they understand the root causes of poverty, which go far beyond family breakdown and low aspirations. Most importantly, any government with a genuine commitment to end child poverty will have to demonstrate that they are prepared to make the necessary investment over the long term – which means spending money, whether on tax credits, employment programmes, skills or parenting support. This will be difficult for the next few years, but it is a vital investment in future generations and in our future prosperity.