Child poverty is for life – we must act now

Tackling child poverty should be a moral crusade for today's Labour party


When the much trailed figures on child poverty were finally released, they were not as bad as expected, which gave the government a positive spin to put on the figures.

However, despite a ‘statutory’ target to eradicate child poverty by 2020, the £12bn of welfare cuts heading towards families already on low incomes is likely to exacerbate the issue.

Standing still on such a significant issue is surely a failure, not something to claim as a success.

According to the government’s figures, 2.3 million children in the UK live in poverty, before housing costs are taken in to consideration.

Nationally this is one in six children; some areas, including London, see higher levels of child poverty at four in ten. Include the cost of housing and the figures are higher still, with 3.5m condemned to live in poverty.

Add a few punitive policies by a coalition government, even before Osborne got the chance of a free run, hacking away further at the welfare safety net, and Barnados predicted the numbers would rise by a further 1m by 2020.

If you judge a country by whether its children are hungry, things don’t look great for Britain.

Child poverty is for life. The effects of growing up in poverty stay with you forever. Living in poverty as a child has an impact on what results you get at school, the work experience and jobs you get, the college or university you go to and your health and life expectancy.

Much of this can be predicted at – or even before – birth by who your parents are. The randomness of birth creates predictable patterns that perpetuate unfairness within and between generations.

A teacher in Hackney told me how overcrowding meant some of her pupils could barely stay awake when they came to school because of the sleep disruption of sharing four to a room.

Food banks tell me they see spikes in demand during holidays as parents struggle to juggle the extra costs without free school meals.

Tackling child poverty is really about tackling low income, and the anticipated changes to the tax credits make the situation worse and  the task harder for the charities providing ‘voluntary welfare’ including food.

It will undoubtedly come as a shock to many of those who are in work and currently receiving benefits when they realise that they are being defined by the government as  ‘scroungers’ not ‘strivers’.

It isn’t a radical idea that work should pay, and the best way to lift children out of poverty is to make sure their parents earn enough to give their kids the start in life they deserve.

Like many others I have spent considerable time over recent years campaigning for (Labour) policies to ensure low pay is tackled effectively. I will continue to do so; but that cannot mean waiting five years to form a government. People – including children – are paying the price for low pay now.

We need to build on work by councils, including Brent in London for example, which has introduced incentives for local business to pay the London Living Wage.

Unions are also playing a part and there have been strong campaigns in recent years, such as the Ritzy campaign led by BECTU. However, we cannot allow a situation to continue in which people on low incomes who can least afford it can only gain better pay and conditions by taking industrial action.

We need to push for a change of mindset around low pay, and this will require action as well as words.

I hate opposition because we have less power to change things. However, opposition does not mean we cannot make any difference; it’s just that much harder to do so.

Standing still on child poverty is appalling for this government but it is worse for the children living in families with low income.

Heckling from the side lines, or sitting in meetings discussing theories about how to tackle child poverty, is not enough. We need to adopt tackling child poverty and its causes as our own moral crusade for today’s Labour Party.

Fiona Twycross is a Labour London Assembly member. Follow her on Twitter

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