Alan Milburn says child poverty 'no longer problem of the workless and work-shy'


Social mobility tsar Alan Milburn said his report shows "work is not a cure for poverty"

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Working parents in Britain "simply do not earn enough to escape poverty", the government's social mobility tsar Alan Milburn has warned.

Two-thirds of poor children are now from families where an adult works, his report found.

Many low and middle-income children face being "worse off" than their parents because of falling earnings and rising prices, Mr Milburn added.

Wealthier pensioners' benefits should be cut and minimum pay raised, he said.

The former Labour health secretary suggested some benefits currently protected from cuts - such as free TV licences and winter fuel allowances for pensioners - could be means tested in order to share the burden of austerity more fairly.

But a spokesman for David Cameron said: "The prime minister believes it is right to make commitments to pensioners in relationship to state provision."

The government has pledged to safeguard such benefits until the next general election.

'Fairness deficit'

In its first report, the government's Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission warned the target of ending child poverty by 2020 would "in all likelihood be missed by a considerable margin" - leaving as many as two million children in poverty.

Poverty is defined as having a household income that is less than 60% of the national median income.


"Britain remains a deeply divided country" - a stinging line from the Social Mobility Commission's first annual report.

"Being born poor often leads to a lifetime of poverty", say the authors, and higher social mobility has become "the new holy grail of public policy".

The report warns social mobility is "flat-lining" after big shifts in the middle of the last century and "could go in to reverse", with the young paying the highest price.

Alan Milburn's recipe for improvement has praise for some government initiatives and strong criticism of others. It calls for higher minimum wages and more universal help so poor working families get help as well as those out of work.

Universities and employers are chided to do more to "open up social elites" and there's a call for older people to be made to dig deeper into their pockets to help future generations.

In an age of austerity, the authors suggest creating a fairer society will be far from pain-free.

The latest government figures on poverty, released in June, show the median UK household income for 2011/2012 was £427 a week - 60% of that figure was £256 a week.

In that year, 17% of children, or 2.3 million, were classed as being in poverty while 15% of working-age adults, or 5.6 million, were in poverty.

For pensioners, meanwhile, that figures was 16% - or 1.9 million.

The report said Britain still had "high levels of child poverty and low levels of social mobility" with a rising number of children in "absolute poverty" coming from working families.

Two thirds of children officially deemed as being poor now came from a family where at least one parent was working - and in three out of four of those cases, at least one of their parents was working full time, the report found.

It also said the "twin problems of high youth unemployment and falling living standards" were storing up problems for the future.

Among its key recommendations the report urged the government to:

  • End long-term youth unemployment by increasing learning and earning opportunities
  • Reduce in-work poverty by asking the Low Pay Commission to deliver a higher minimum wage
  • Reallocate childcare funding from higher rate taxpayers to help those on Universal Credit

"Just as the UK government has focused on reducing the country's financial deficit it now needs to redouble its efforts to reduce our country's fairness deficit," the report said.

'Sharing the burden'

Single mother Judith Healy, who works from home as a telemarketer, said that, while her wages had not gone up, her expenses had continued to increase.

Judith Healy: "There are so many people in my position - we're not heard any more"

She said she was worried about paying energy bills this winter.

"We didn't ask to get in this situation, we are doing the best that we can in the circumstances that we have and that's really what it's about - it's survival now," she told BBC News.

Mr Milburn told the BBC: "Today child poverty is a problem for working families rather than the workless or the work-shy."

Around five million people in the country, mainly women, were earning less than the living wage, which is about £7.45 an hour outside of London, he said.

"These are the people frankly who do all the right things, they go out to work, they stand on their own two feet, they look after their families - they're the strivers not the shirkers - and yet they're all too often the forgotten people of Britain and I think they desperately need a new deal."

Mr Milburn said that while ministers and employers could do more, it was unrealistic to expect the government to continue topping up low pay using working tax credits.

Start Quote

As the commission states, there is an urgent need to rebalance the distribution of resources so that the burden of austerity is more equally shared”

End Quote National Children's Bureau

He advocated a scheme for pairing bright children with the best teachers in an effort to raise attainment.

Mr Milburn has previously said social mobility - the idea that individuals can better themselves in terms of educational opportunity, job prospects and salaries from one generation to the next - is "flat-lining".

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg welcomed the report, but warned that "punishing pensioners isn't going to help a single child achieve more in life".

Enver Solomon, of the National Children's Bureau charity, said the report was "a wake-up call for all political parties by stating that our country is dramatically polarised between the haves and have- nots".

"As the commission states, there is an urgent need to rebalance the distribution of resources so that the burden of austerity is more equally shared," he said.

Shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves said the "powerful report" showed "ordinary families' living standards [were being] squeezed and social divisions [were] deepening as a result of this government's decisions to put a privileged few first".

On Wednesday, figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed the number of unemployed people in the UK fell by 18,000 to 2.49 million in the June-August period.

Map showing levels of child poverty in the UK. Highest areas are Tower Hamlets in London, Manchester, Belfast, Derry, Middlesbrough and Glasgow

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  • rate this

    Comment number 912.

    Minimum wage in this country is a huge problem, theres a vast margin between a safe living cost and the minmum income. Australia has a minimum wage iof $17.50 per hour which by the exchange rate today is about £10.50. Ours should be up there as living costs are similar in Britain and Australia. Our social system gives too much for doing nothing and nothing for giving everything.

  • rate this

    Comment number 867.

    Barking up the wrong tree as ever. Until we re-distribute (fairly) the wealth owned by the top 10% there will never be enough money to redress the balance. The politicians however represent the top 10% and many of them are actually in it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 786.

    I think to an extent it's all relative - I still think that as a nation we are richer, and have more disposable income than the generations before us. But we have higher expectations too - things that once were considered luxuries are now expectations (Sky, iPhones, holidays, takeaways...). Address 'need' and not 'want' and a simpler, less throwaway lifestyle and we can all be happy with less.

  • rate this

    Comment number 712.

    A lot of people who work are relatively poor. Until salaries are spoken as gross rather than net there is always the illusion that a working person is better off than other sections of society. By the time taxes are paid, pension contributions taken out, journeys to work considered there is about 50% of the gross salary left. We need to be very honest about actual incomes

  • rate this

    Comment number 673.

    This comes down to what YOUR perception of 'poverty' is. Putting aside party politics for a while...if you can afford to put a roof over your head and food on your table and pay your utilties then you are not 'poor'. That isn't to say that life should be a struggle, but if you want more than that, then it is up to YOU to make the 'extras' happen.


Comments 5 of 14


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