Income and Poverty

The stalled child poverty strategy requires a radical response: the newly-housed homeless show how

  • Published: Feb 28, 2014
  • Author: Peter Kenway
  • Category: Income and Poverty

Is “a home not a dwelling, sound, affordable and secure” now the rock on which efforts to end child poverty should be built?

This was the week when the government was expected finally to publish its child poverty strategy. Instead what it has actually produced is an incomplete draft. That this is a serious set-back is not in doubt.

An easy explanation for this is that Iain Duncan Smith lost a battle against the Treasury which didn’t want its hands tied as it prepares for a new round of post-election cuts. It is easy to imagine that Duncan Smith’s zeal was no match for the Treasury’s grim fiscal determinism.

Yet to leave it there is complacent. A key question is why the Treasury is reluctant to spend more on poverty reduction? Isn’t the most likely explanation, this being the Treasury, that actually it does not think it would be worth it?

Even more tellingly, why has the cocktail of ideas about the causes of poverty been drugs, family breakdown and ‘intergenerational worklessness’? It is certainly not because these beliefs are supported by the evidence.  In the way that nature abhors a vacuum, isn’t it because a necessary condition for such views to thrive is that mainstream remedies have been found wanting?

The Coalition’s fundamental charge is sound. Labour did spend vast sums of money on tax credits (and housing benefit) to lift families with children above the poverty line. Lift them it did – but as we showed year after year in our annual Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion  report, as it did so, so the numbers of children needing that lift grew too.


Yet their remedy – the Coalition’s and Labour’s – that ‘work is the route out of poverty’ simply lacks credibility when poverty among working families is so widespread as to be – as it is now – the most likely work status now for a low income household.

It is not that the old truths about work and money are now falsehoods; that poverty can be brought down with fewer jobs or lower levels of financial support for children. It is just that they have been shown to be nowhere near enough. The stalled child poverty strategy is not just a failure for Duncan Smith but for a whole anti-poverty programme: a sign of its exhaustion some saw half a dozen years ago.

So where should anti-poverty campaigners turn now? A rather brilliant report, also published this week by the charities Crisis and Shelter (and funded by the Big Lottery), called a Roof over my Head, shows the way. Drawing on face-to-face interviews conducted over 19 months into the experience of previously homeless people who had been found somewhere to live in the private rented sector (PRS), the report is at once easy to understand and very hard hitting.

The reason the report is brilliant is that through it, the voices of newly-housed homeless people express a devastatingly simple truth. The opening sentences of the first three key findings sum it up. “Housing was perceived as the base on which people could rebuild their lives. People moving into PRS properties felt that their tenancies should be home. People wanted somewhere they could achieve stability”. This need, not merely for a dwelling but for a home, with enough security to start building a life, is a truth that anti-poverty campaigners have allowed themselves to forget.

What is shocking about the report is what it then goes on to say about the reality of the PRS for these people. Carrying on as before, “the research found that in the majority of tenancies, these needs weren’t met. Every home had a condition problem. The majority of people had to deal with problem landlords. Some people were moved into very cramped, unsuitable accommodation. People who had been moved out of the area they originally sought support in found this disruptive.”

Each of these points is shocking. But that every one of more than 100 homes should have had a condition problem, with adverse impacts on health, cold and fuel bills, is as stunning a finding as any research report is likely to produce.

The report, all the more powerful for its modesty, is not offered up as a general answer to poverty. But it can stake a wider claim. Yes, the people who speak through the report are likely near the very bottom of the PRS, and by definition in the most vulnerable personal circumstances. But the overlap between poverty and the PRS has been growing rapidly. It may even be that when the next poverty statistics come out, the PRS may have become the largest poverty tenure. In its identification of what people want and how the PRS thwarts that ambition, A Roof Over My Head is not just for housing campaigners but for anti-poverty campaigners too. A home not a dwelling, somewhere safe, sound and secure: in aiming to meet this universal need, the campaign to end poverty can start afresh.

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