Tea Party at the DWP: why the Coalition is desperate to redefine child poverty

The DWP has recently consulted on changing the way in which child poverty is defined, seeking – quite consciously – to broaden the definition away from that of relative poverty.  It’s a move that has attracted controversy among those working in the field, who argue that it is right to consider factors other than income in defining poverty, but that the current DWP proposals go too far (here, for example, is Save the Children’s eloquent and tightly-argued case for retaining relative poverty as a key indicator of child poverty)

But it seems clear that there is a fundamental, ideological reason why this redefinition is being pushed through now.  The DWP remains the Coalition’s Ideology Central, the home of the Coalition’s Tea Party tendency; and it seems obvious to me that there is a clear and fundamental ideological aim behind this proposal.

First, there is the obvious factor: under coalition proposals – and in particular the unprecedented range of benefit cuts due to be implemented in April – many thousands of families are being pushed further into poverty.  A recent Parliamentary Answer from Steve Webb MP – the token Orange Booker inside the Coalition’s Ministry of Love – indicated that of the 200,000 children who would be pushed into poverty by the 1% cap on benefits, 100,000 would come from families where at least one person was in work.  For a Government – or for that matter a Parliamentary consensus – that speaks the language of strivers and shirkers, that is a desperately embarrassing admission.  But it comes as no surprise – the creation, inadvertant or not, of a low-wage economy that matches falling pay with increasing living costs – especially housing costs – has meant that Government has been obliged to top-up low pay with tax credits; an effective subsidy for low-paying employers.

But there is far more than this.  The recently-closed Government consultation proposes a measure of child poverty based on eight variables:

Income and material deprivation

Worklessness

Unmanagable debt

Poor housing

Parental skill level

Access to quality education

Family stability

Parental health

Obviously, income and material deprivation is only one of these; and of the others, only two are obviously and directly linked to income.  The important issue here is the way in which the others have become part of the rhetoric of the Right, which talks in terms of low aspiration, of self-inflicted health issues, of generations of unemployment (the latter being effectively skewered by the Joseph Rowntree trust) and the language of workfare programmes.

In other words, the whole thrust of Coalition policy is to move towards a definition of poverty based on blame; a list that can be spun as things that people get themselves into, rather than things beyond their control that they cannot get out of.  In other words, it is essentially an ideological shift – an attempt to bring the definition of policy in line with neoliberal politics rather than empirical reality.

And it is an important reminder that for neoliberals and austerity economists – not least for the maintenance of the neoliberal consensus among the main Westminster political parties – it is absolutely essential to redefine poverty as something that arises from the failures and fecklessness of the indvidual, rather than something that results from capitalist economics.  It’s a rhetoric that is as old as capitalism itself- the belief that you can work your way out of poverty, and that application and effort bring riches (a proposition that can be disproved by walking into any NHS hospital ward and counting the millionaires among the nurses and ancillary staff).

Ian Duncan Smith was at it again yesterday, declaring that outrage about workfare programmes was essentially the result of middle-class and educated people whingeing that shelf-stacking was too good for them.  Duncan Smith’s comments ignored the reality of big business being subsidised by using free forced labour of people – who had often paid National Insurance for decades – under threat of using their benefits; he was free, unchallenged as ever by the mainstream media, to develop this disgraceful narrative (the most eloquent response to which is perhaps not the deluge of outrage that followed but the silence of the Labour leadership).

And this is all of a piece with narratives of scrounging and fecklessness, the demonisation of the poor and hate-speech towards the disabled that sits at the heart of modern British political discourse.  In the USA, the wealthy managed to create the Tea Party movement, which mobilised the poor and insecure against the big government that, in fact, remains the bulwark between waged individuals and exploitation.  In Britain we have our own Tea Party mentality, in which successive Governments have sought to demonise the poor and insecure as creators of their own misfortune.  It is now the Coalition, but Labour, with their talk of strivers, are equally guilty; workfare is of course core New Labour policy.

Austerity is a state of mind; defeating it means rejecting it as a default economics.  And to do so, resisting the recasting of poverty as something people do to themselves is absolutely fundamental.

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