The truth about modern poverty

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I THINK we have very outdated notions about what child poverty is in this country. We think of a Dickensian view of a child without shoes, without food,” says Lisa Harker. The woman who has been dubbed the Government’s “child poverty czar” is out to change people’s attitudes.

A long-time campaigner on children’s policy, Harker has been given the task of scrutinising the Department for Work and Pensions’ work on child poverty. She has been in the role part-time since July, “challenging and questioning” its policies, and her report will be published next month.

The work has led to wider questions, she says, not least the idea that the pervasive Dickensian view of child poverty stops us seeing what’s under our noses. Poverty, she says, increasingly means that someone in a family is in work, but struggling. “They’re people who we work with. They’re not A. N Other group that we don’t see who are feckless or cut away from the mainstream of society,” she says.

As well as being likely to focus on how the Government can lift people out of poverty through employment, higher income support, tax credits and the minimum wage, her report will lay responsibility at the private sector’s door. The notion of in-work poverty, she says, is a big departure in thinking, but a necessary shift in a rapidly changing labour market. “Helping people out of poverty is going to be as much about ensuring they’ve got the right skills to compete in the labour market as it is about tackling unemployment. Of course it raises the question about the responsibilities of employers.” Decent wages, flexible working, career progression and skills are all issues for them, she says.

But public attitudes are complex, Harker adds. Earlier this year she wrote an essay for the Institute for Public Policy Research, a think-tank, pointing out that many people regard hardship as a symptom of personal failure in others.

“We have hidden (poverty) away. And I think the Government has a responsibility to be much more upfront about the level of inequality in our society. There is a fear that this is not an issue the public will be interested in,” she says.

Even so, she’s not cynical: “I do believe that there’s an innate British sense of fairness, that people want to live in a country where the economic growth is shared among us,” she says. A public debate is needed, she suggests, to reignite our sense of moral outrage about child poverty. And a “Bono, a Geldof or a Jamie” wouldn’t be a bad idea either. “I do think our language about poverty turns people off. Statistical measures do not resonate with people’s everyday understanding of what poverty is. We need to find a way to build the equivalent of Make Poverty History in the UK.”

There is a sense of urgency to Harker’s work — the Government’s target of halving child poverty by 2010 and eradicating it by 2020 are certain to be missed if something doesn’t change. And Harker is personally impatient, something she says is more pronounced since she was knocked off her bike by a lorry in Oxford, where she lives, two years ago. She was pregnant at the time and almost died.

“I don’t want to be defined by it, but it was such a major thing in my life. It also doesn’t feel honest not to share it,” she says. “I’ve got a sense of time being very short.” Given her high aspirations, she still feels that she will have failed even if her recommendations are achieved tomorrow.

“It’s all about trying to really raise the stakes,” she says. “While I hope that I have my feet on the ground and suggest things that are practically feasible, I also hope that some of what I’m saying is a step ahead of where the Government is.”