Did the small child poverty package in May’s Budget makes the issue go away for National? Not in the slightest, according to the polling shown in the graph below. Concerns about poverty and inequality, which had already skyrocketed since 2010, have only increased in recent months – and the last poll was taken in June, when the Budget would have been most in people’s minds.
Note, also, that concern has continued to rise since last year’s election, when you might reasonably have expected it to die down for a while, as the campaigners in that field took a bit of a break.
So clearly, this isn’t an issue that is going to go away quickly. And that’s not surprising. The Budget’s announcement that core benefit rates would rise for the first time in 40 years marked a huge ideological shift, after decades of arguments that keeping benefits low was important for ‘incentives’. But in practical terms, it didn’t deliver much: just $25 a week, some of which would be clawed back in reduced housing allowances and so on.
And when it comes down to it, I don’t think that what lies behind the huge concern about poverty and inequality is a whole bunch of people thinking, ‘Gosh, if only poor households had another $25 a week, everything would be all right.’ That’s not what is going on in people’s minds. The concern goes much deeper than that. People see kids going to school without food (or at least they did while Campbell Live was running). They see increasing concentrations of advantage and disadvantage. They see the unbelievable rates of Third World childhood diseases (thanks to Bryan Bruce’s documentaries).
While I wouldn’t argue that the bulk of the public understands the issues in detail or knows how to tackle them, I think the concern about inequality and poverty is a deep one. The words have entered the mainstream narrative about this country (and rightly so), and changing that will require big, structural shifts, not $25 here and there.
In electoral terms, it’s a different matter. The Budget’s package may be enough to keep swing voters happy and stop them moving over to Labour. But without bigger change, the issue will continue to haunt our government, whichever party may be running it.