Politicised poverty research misses the point
It is a bit tricky to criticise an organisation that describes itself as “the leading charity campaigning for the abolition of child poverty in the UK”. But when a charity enters the realm of political debate, as the Child Poverty Action Group frequently does, then their proposals ought to be examined without the kid gloves on.
Not so long ago, the CPAG’s membership journal featured an article in which Polly Toynbee presented her findings from qualitative research into the attitudes of the UK’s “super-rich” (the upper 1%) towards poverty. The first part of the article could be described as an eat-the-rich rant. The way Toynbee explains it, her research started as an attempt to “persuade” the wealthy to pay more taxes. But this carrot approach failed, so Toynbee now recommends the stick:
“This very small slice of the population is, always was and always will be profoundly conservative, myopic and ignorant about everyone else. They will never be persuaded, and any progressive party must simply ignore them.”
The second part of the article, in contrast, is an alleluia to the virtues of the big state:
“We are closest to the USA, low tax and spend, high inequality. France and Germany are in the middle, fairer and higher taxed. The Nordics, such as Sweden and Finland, are the highest taxed and the fairest. […] The other great task is to persuade people that government really does do good […] Can we recapture public enthusiasm for the virtue of taxation as the most important part of citizenship?”
But what does any of this have to do with child poverty? What is the connection between the incomes of the richest 60,000 individuals in society, the overall size of the state apparatus, and the wellbeing of children?
What children deserve is access to high-quality education, healthcare, and housing in an area not blighted by crime and violence. Contrary to Toynbee’s assertion, the UK is by no means suffering from a scrawny state that spends almost nothing in these areas. Instead, public spending is quite high by international comparisons. It has risen considerably in recent years, and largely failed to satisfy the expectations connected with the increase.
We will not improve children’s life chances by glorifying the state bureaucracy regardless of the outcomes it produces. And going green with envy will not do the job either.
UPDATE: A reader has pointed out that the CPAG receives a significant proportion of its income from various government departments. See Note 3 to the 2008 accounts.