Britain is on the brink of becoming a nation permanently divided between rich and poor, according to the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission in its second annual state of the nation report.
The 335-page document is likely to be a reference point against which the government’s anti-poverty record will be judged, and to feature strongly in opposition party manifestos for the 2015 general election.
The report says all three main Westminster political parties are lamentably failing to be frank with the electorate about the fact there is no chance of meeting the government’s statutory child poverty target by 2020.
It also predicts that 2010-2020 will be the first decade since records began that saw a rise in absolute poverty – defined as a household in which income is below 60% of median earnings. A rise from 2.6 million households in absolute poverty to 3.5 million is now expected.
The chair of the commission, the former Labour cabinet minister Alan Milburn, said: “Muddling through will not do when the mismatch between needs and anti-poverty government policies are widening.”
Asked whether the government had responded to his first report, he said: “It is like water from the stone. Our plea is not just to the current parties of government … They are great at talking the talk, the issue is whether they can walk the walk. The policies lack the scale to move the dial.”
Milburn attacked the government for failing to agree a child poverty strategy due to a coalition row. “You cannot have a situation where government ministers first discredit a target and then fail to agree a new target and then go back to a discredited old target,” he said. “That is beyond a Whitehall farce.”
The report warns that “2020 could mark a watershed between an era in which for decades there have been rising living standards shared by all and a future era where rising living standards bypass the poorest in society.”
It suggests that the link between effort and reward, on which social mobility relies, has been broken by changes in the housing market – with home ownership rates halving among young people in 20 years – and the labour market – with 5 million workers trapped in low pay.
When combined with cuts in welfare and public spending, these changes put Britain on track to become a permanently divided nation.
The report calls on the next government to supplement the existing targets with new measures to give a more rounded picture of poverty and to amend the legislation to set out a new timescale for achieving them.