Why we need a 'triple lock' on children's benefits


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Four in ten Londoners in families aren’t able to afford a minimum standard of living. For lone parent families, this rises to two thirds.

These were the findings of new research as part of the Minimum Income Standards (MIS) project from Loughborough University, funded by Trust for London. This work is based on a series of focus groups where members of the public reach a consensus on what is needed, not only to ensure survival, but “in order to have the opportunities and choices necessary to participate in society.”

This methodology is really important. Evidence of a public consensus on a minimum standard of living matters when we’re talking about difficult issues like relative poverty.

And the cost of meeting this minimum standard is far, far more expensive than the official poverty line. Families on the poverty line will be able to afford about 70 per cent of the minimum standard. But of course, there are many families well below this line. Those on safety net benefits will only be able to afford just over half of the minimum standard. So the findings are as much about what families are going without, as it is about what is needed.

It’s a pretty grim picture. But the insight this process gives into what drives costs and limits incomes means that it can be used to push for positive changes to policy and practice rather than just bemoan a the situation.

For example, I was struck by the focus group discussions on just how difficult it is for families to catch a bus – the cheapest form of public transport – with a buggy. Could we do more to make buses meet the need of families and reduce their costs? There was a long discussion in the focus groups about whether families need a tumble dryer and how difficult it is to dry clothes in cramped homes, with the implications that has for health. At the launch event, Brent Councillor Roxanne Mashari reflected on how much time and money her council spends on tackling damp in its housing stock, a problem exacerbated by air-drying clothes – could they do something more cost-efficient in the long term?

The effects of the high costs of childcare were also striking – scandalously, lone parents working full-time on minimum wage are left further away from the minimum than if they weren’t working at all. These high childcare costs also pay a role in limiting earnings. Lone parents find themselves with higher costs and fewer choices about the jobs they can take – they can be frozen out of the jobs market altogether or limited to part-time work.

We need a long term strategy on childcare, but there are also some quick fixes. The maximum amounts of support available through working tax credit (the cap hasn’t been updated since 2005) fall woefully short of the costs of childcare in the capital, leaving many low income families having to make up the huge shortfall.

The most useful aspect of this research is cementing the link between poverty and costs. Families are more likely to fall short of the minimum standard than working age adults or pensioners, because of the extra costs that come from bringing up a child. This is further evidence that urgent action is needed to ensure that as a society we help to meet these costs – which is why the End Child Poverty coalition has been calling for children’s benefits to receive the same ‘triple lock’ protection as the basic state pension.

This was first published on Trust for London's website: http://www.trustforlondon.org.uk/news-and-events/news-and-comments/why-w...