Poverty is not about having no money. Pay no attention to poverty figures because they only measure money. People are poor because of their lifestyles; worklessness, family breakdown, bad parenting, drink and drug addiction, irresponsible debt, crime and lack of aspiration … All week expect that message to be blasted out by ministers trying to drown out Thursday's official poverty figures. The aim is to rubbish the poverty measure accepted by all international organisations and to call for new measures that ignore inequality.
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Tory filth pushing responsibility for being poor on the poor
The government's problem is not that the figures – on "Households below average income" – will be bad, but that they will be embarrassingly good. The data, compiled for 2010-11 by the Office for National Statistics, will be the final verdict on Labour's record, before George Osborne's cuts. Will that ambitious target to abolish child poverty by 2020, halving it by 2010, be hit? Not by a long way. But Labour did well, at a time when poverty was rising in every other industrial country. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) expects the figures to show Labour cut child poverty by 900,000, with another 900,000 prevented from falling into poverty. At that rate the 2020 target would have been reached by 2027. The IFS knows of no other time or nation in which child poverty fell so far, so fast.
The Child Poverty Action Group on Tuesday assembles evidence predicting the figures will go into sharp reverse. The IFS expects that cuts will cause child poverty to surge by 100,000 a year, half a million over this government's term: £18bn of welfare cuts take most from poor families, with parental employment unlikely to rise. David Cameron will oversee the worst child poverty record of any government for a generation. In his sheep's clothing days, he promised: "It falls to us, the modern Conservative party, to fight for the poorest." Now his party fights against them.
Who are the poor? Most are in work – repeat that three times, for you will hear no ministers say it. Only 4% are addicts. Most are poor because their wages are so low. Labour's solution was tax credits, topping up incomes to make sure work was always worthwhile. Recent cuts knock people back into poverty, with £4,000 cut from families on £17,000, unless they can up their hours to at least 24 a week: 1.4m part-timers desperately seek full-time work. Ministers boast of whipping people into work with mandatory work experience, airbrushing out the lack of jobs. Claims of falling unemployment disguise the drop in full-time work: growth is all part-time jobs.
The government's poverty mantras will echo through this week: personal failings are the cause; anyone who tries hard enough can get a job; Labour "threw money at poverty" with no result; the poverty measure is nonsense. Cameron said the opposite before the election: he stood by the relative poverty measure now under threat, promising his party "will measure and will act on relative poverty … the fact that some people lack things others take for granted"; and he voted for Labour's Child Poverty Act. The only way to measure a nation's poverty over time is to count how many fall below the norm, and how far. This international measure counts anyone on less than 60% of a country's median income – not, repeat not, the mean – so it compares low-income households with those in the middle, not with the richest. The IFS says similar declines emerge if you set the figure as low as 40% of median income – utterly refuting Nick Clegg's toxic line dismissing the threshold as just "poverty plus a pound".
The Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), Iain Duncan Smith's thinktank, is running the rubbishing of Labour's record. Its latest Rethinking Child Poverty report makes a statistical howler (is it deliberate?), claiming a "methodological flaw" because "the poor will always exist statistically as it is inevitable some in society will have less than others". But since the measure is those falling below the middle, not the mean average, it makes no difference, if, say Bill Gates moves to Britain. Nordic countries have all but eliminated poverty by pulling the bottom up towards the middle: it can be done. CSJ reports focus on family breakdown, calling for Cameron's promised marriage tax allowance – though that gives most to the better-off. They savagely attack Labour's tax credits, oddly claiming poverty has nothing to do with actual income.
Lifting living standards was only part of Labour's anti-poverty plan. In retrospect its record looks ever better, with childcare credits, nurseries for all, Sure Start children's centres, more lone mothers in work, the education maintenance allowance, the child trust fund nest egg and more: most of this is now cut or abolished. Take BookStart, giving books to all babies at seven months, and again at three and seven years old, encouraging parents to read to them. Half of families had no books for babies until this scheme: it led them to take children to libraries. Michael Gove cancelled it immediately, Philip Pullman led an outcry, Gove U-turned, cut it by 70% and gave back just £6m, but now even that's in peril. Publishers donate £22m: if he cancels the fund so will they – so much for the cant about helping good parenting. This week the Institute of Education publishes research that early poverty permanently damages children's cognitive development: poverty makes more difference than whether a mother has university or only basic education.
The government caricatures poor people in terms of the worst cases they can find: so far they have won the public argument. Eric Pickles kicked off the pre-emptive rebuttal on Monday by announcing allocations to 120,000 troubled families, with councils offered £4,000 if they reduce the costs these families cause. Since social services have suffered huge cuts, getting back a couple of per cent is no doubt welcome. But the only poor people ministers ever mention are bad cases, as in Duncan Smith's all-purpose threat to the jobless: "This is not an easy life any more, chum. I think you're a slacker."
The campaign of vilification has been clever: Osborne's announcement that no one would get more benefits than the £26,000 median wage was another masterstroke, suggesting most are living the high life. The truth? These represent less than 1% of people on benefits, exceptional cases in high-cost temporary accommodation in London. Yet the large sum lodged in the public mind implying it was standard. It successfully hid the plunge in living standards for millions of others through housing benefit cuts: only one in eight on housing benefit are not in work. What few realise is that 88% of all the benefit cuts are still to come. Presumably Cameron long ago decided no one cares: he may yet be proved wrong.