A key motivation fueling welfare reform is the government’s desire to reduce the numbers of people who qualify for disability benefits – whether this is the out-of-work benefit, Employment and Support Allowance (previously Incapacity Benefit), or the additional costs benefit, Personal Independence Payment (previously Disability Living Allowance).
Yet the impact of welfare reform will also increase the numbers of children growing into adulthood with long-term impairment and/or ill health.
This is for two reasons:
1. In spite of the recent statistical blip (caused by the reduction in median income rather than by any real decrease), child poverty is expected to rise from 2012-13 and – if nothing stops this upward trend – one in four children will be living in poverty by2020.
2. Children who grow up in poverty are more likely to acquire a long-term disabling condition by the time they reach adulthood.
This latter point is revealed by research carried out by the Institute of Health at the University of Warwick which asked the question: “To what extent is early social disadvantage associated with long-term disabling conditions in later childhood?” Analysing data for 1991 and 2001 from the Office for National Statistics Longitudinal Study, they found:
• The odds of developing chronic disabling conditions in later childhood increased as the level of household disadvantage rose
• For children in the most disadvantaged group in 1991, the odds of developing chronic disabling conditions by 2001 were more than twice those for children living in the least disadvantaged households.[i]
In other words, a non-disabled child under the age of 10, whose parents are poor, is more likely to become disabled by the age of 20 than a child whose parents are not poor.
When this research was raised in a recent House of Lords debate, the response was: “The Government are indeed committed to tackling child poverty but believe that it is key to tackle the causes ratherthan to treat the symptoms”.
The problem is that current welfare reform policies are based on an ideological, rather than an evidence-based, view of what the causes of poverty are (as is very evident from the consultation on changing how to measure child poverty). At the heart of current welfare policy is the assumption that paid employment is the route – the only route – out of poverty. This is despite evidence that there are more poor families where at least one member of the household is working than where no-one is working and 61% of children in poverty have at least one parent in work – up from 45% in the mid-nineties.
Rather than focus on the problem of in-work poverty, however, the government’s ideologically driven approach to policy assumes, not only that paid employment is the only route out of poverty, but that it is the motivation and behaviour of individuals that is the key barrier to getting work. Factors over which people have no control – the number and type of jobs in their locality, ill health or impairment, the behaviour of employers – are no longer recognised.
Poverty and disadvantage are therefore to be tackled by instilling individual responsibility and effort through financial incentives delivered by the benefit system. It is this ideology which lies behind welfare reform – the aim is that no-one will be better off on benefits than in work, and that financial sanctions will create the motivation to get into work. This principle – rather than evidence – has driven welfare reform with the result that the legislation and its implementation takes no account of real world factors which create insuperable barriers for many people seeking work and affordable homes.
When we objected in the 1980s to Margaret Thatcher’s ‘There is no such thing as society’ stance, we were objecting to the notion that, in times of need, individuals could only rely on themselves and their families, rather than also on the wider society. Today we have an approach which is in many ways the other side of the same ideological coin – a refusal to recognise the influence of socio-economic factors on individual life-chances.
The refusal to acknowledge the influence of factors over which individuals have no control, is storing up significant problems for the future. It is ruining lives and will cost our society dearly.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the relationship between childhood disability and poverty. Current government policies, by increasing childhood poverty, will increase the numbers of children growing into adulthood affected by impairment and/or long-term ill health. Once they reach adulthood, however, they will meet a system which tells them that their reduced employment prospects are down to their lack of motivation and their own individual failings, and condemn them to a quality of life which doesn’t really bear thinking about.