We must make the moral and pragmatic case for ending child poverty

Child poverty doesn’t just mean having less opportunities and less access to goods and services growing up. Its effects are long term and in many cases last a lifetime.

Children living in poverty

Mike Buckley is the director of the Independent Commission on UK-EU Relations and a former Labour Party adviser 

The last fourteen years of Conservative Government has taken a terrible toll on children and young people. This has been a government which despite its frequent changes of leader and direction has held course in at least this one area: it has paid little heed to the needs of children and young people, particularly those at the bottom of the pile.

The impact on poorer children was set out this week in a UNICEF report which found that child income poverty rates in the UK are the highest among the world’s richest countries.

Their assessment of this Government’s impact could hardly be worse – under the Tories the UK has seen the highest increase in child poverty rates among developed countries in the past decade.

Where child poverty has increased here by 20% other, better governed, nations have seen marked reductions: Poland, Slovenia and Latvia topped the rankings with a reduction in child poverty rates of more than 30%.

“While some countries in this group have taken steps to increase support, in the UK we have seen a reduction in spending on child and family benefits and more children growing up in poverty,” Chief Executive of UNICEF UK Jon Sparkes said.

The increase is not uniform. Like other aspects of poverty and inequality, child poverty is linked to class, ethnicity and disability.

  • Overall 4.3 million children now live in poverty, 30% of the total, up from 3.6 million in 2010-11 and a marked reversal of New Labour’s success in taking 800,000 children out of poverty.
  • Children from black and minority ethnic groups are more likely to be in poverty: 48% compared with 25% of children in white British families.
  • 36% of children living in families where someone has a disability are in poverty.
  • Poor families fall deeper into poverty: 2.7 million children are in deep poverty (i.e. with a household income below 50% of average income), 500,000 more than in 2010/11.
  • 44% of children in lone parent families are in poverty.

Child poverty doesn’t just mean having less opportunities and less access to goods and services growing up. Its effects are long term and in many cases last a lifetime.

  • Lack of basic security: growing up in poverty means being cold, going hungry, not being able to join in activities with friends.
  • Poor educational outcomes: most poor children fall behind at all stages of education. By the age of three they on average nine months behind wealthier children; by GCSE there is a 28% gap between children receiving free school meals and wealthier peers in terms of the number achieving at least 5 A*-C GCSE grades.
  • Risks to childhood health: the poorest infants have an almost 10 times higher chance of dying suddenly in infancy than those in the highest income group. Acute illnesses are more likely to affect poor children and they are more likely to experience hospital admission.
  • Poor lifetime health outcomes: poverty leads to more complicated health histories over the course of a lifetime, influencing earnings as well as the overall quality and length of life. Men in the most deprived areas of England have a life expectancy 9.2 years shorter than men in the least deprived areas. They spend 14% less of their life in good health. Women share similar statistics.
  • Income: the link between growing up in poverty and being poor in adulthood has become stronger since the 1970s – social mobility is failing.

Beyond the impact on the children alone there are significant societal impacts. The Child Poverty Action Group estimates that child poverty costs society at least £39.5bn a year due to the greater risk of unemployment and lower earnings potential of adults who grew up in poverty, and of the additional amount spent on public services to help address the damage done to children growing up in poverty. 

The reasons for the rise in child poverty are not complicated. Benefit cuts since 2010 have reduced the incomes of poorer households by almost £3,000 a year. Overall spending on social security is over £34bn lower than it would otherwise have been.

The bedroom tax, increasing sanctions, universal credit, the benefit cap and the two-child tax credit limit have all had an impact. Research from the Trussell Trust in 2020 showed that in areas where Universal Credit had been rolled out for at least a year, food banks in their network have seen a 30% increase in demand.

Wider austerity measures, the cost of living crisis, dramatically increased housing costs and persistently low wages – which have not risen in real terms since 2008 – have kept households poor even as costs rise. The inevitable result is rising poverty, with poorer children among the worst affected.

The rise in child poverty is both a result of deliberate Government policy and a consequence of wider malaise in the British economy and society. As the Resolution Foundation set out last week, after the last 15 years of stagnation the UK is now less wealthy than most of our peer countries, and more unequal. An incoming Labour Government will need to pay attention, and be ambitious on both.

Fixing child poverty will benefit the nation: lower benefit bills, better education and health outcomes, over time higher productivity and lower health spending.

But away from national statistics we must make the moral case for ending child poverty. A decent society doesn’t let poorer people fall ever further behind, but that is what we have done. As one of the world’s wealthiest nations there is no need for single child to grow up in poverty, left without a warm home, food on the table and the resources and opportunities to start their life with confidence and hope.

As politicians are fond of saying, ending child poverty will entail hard choices. It is hard to imagine a world in which child poverty is dramatically reduced and in which the two child benefit cap and bedroom tax remain, or in which wages and benefits which are low in comparison to those of peer nations do not rise.

But the starting point is that we need to make the moral and pragmatic case for ending child poverty – for their sakes, and because doing so would benefit our nation’s economy and society for decades to come.

Comments are closed.