Over twenty years ago, in 1999, then Prime Minister Tony Blair made the historic commitment to abolish child poverty by 2020. This ambitious pledge changed the nature of the debate on poverty, leading to an apparent cross-party consensus on the issue: in 2006 David Cameron promised that his (more compassionate) Conservative Party would recognise and act on relative poverty.
2020 has suddenly arrived, and the policy context feels markedly different. Child poverty rates remain stubbornly high and are expected to grow further as reforms introduced by the 2015-2020 Conservative Government take full effect. Most notable here is the two-child limit, which means the child element of tax credits and universal credit are only available for the first two children in a household, with notable exemptions linked to multiple births, kinship care and instances of rape (child benefit remains available for all children). The two-child limit, alongside policies such as the household benefits cap, are noteworthy not only because they will increase poverty but because they explicitly break the longstanding link between needs and entitlements in the British benefits system.
By their very design, both of these policies penalise larger families, and will disproportionately affect single parent households and particular religious and ethnic groups. Despite this, the policies are thought to be popular with the electorate. Politicians defend their introduction by drawing on a narrative of ‘fairness’, arguing that people in receipt of state benefits should be expected to make the same decisions about family size and make up as those in (low-paid) employment.
It is against this background that we are embarking on an ambitious (and we believe timely) three year study to better understand the consequences of the two-child limit and benefits cap. Funded by the Nuffield Foundation, we will combine quantitative and qualitative approaches, as well as incorporating participatory methodologies, to ensure that we learn from and engage with the expertise of experience on poverty and social security receipt. We will use large-scale survey data to describe the profile of larger families, and to explore how their poverty risk and poverty depth has changed over time. We will further employ creative quantitative methods to explore the impact of these policies on parental mental health and the self-reported wellbeing of children in affected families.
At the same time, we will walk alongside a small number of families in Bradford and London as they navigate and cope with the consequences of the changed policy context. By returning to the same families on three occasions, we will track changes over time, and in particular explore how and whether these policies affect families’ decision making around caring, parenting and employment. We will also explore how affected families respond to and cope with the reduced financial support that these policies introduce (when compared to the legacy system), and how these changes sit alongside other reforms to the benefit system, most notably here universal credit.
This project also includes participatory elements; working with members of larger families living in poverty to discuss policy recommendations, and to explore together the data which emerges from the quantitative analyses. Child Poverty Action Group will be working with us throughout the project to help us to engage policymakers and to disseminate our findings as widely as is possible.
By the end of this year, we should have been celebrating the eradication of child poverty, an ambition which is now out of reach. Instead, we hope our project uses this moment to reflect on the changing poverty risk of larger families, and the impact of policies that so decidedly (and starkly) abolish the link between need and entitlement in our social security system. That is the ambition and rationale behind this new project, which will address a key gap in our understandings of recent welfare reforms.