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Credit: Phil Dolby

Child Poverty: How To Hold Back The Rising Tide

“Childhood is measured out in sounds and smells and sights, before the dark hour of reason grows,” said the poet John Betjeman – and those sounds and smells and sights are different if you grow up in poverty. Different memories follow you into adulthood. The day may come sooner when you are dealing with the dark reality of temporary homes or wondering where your next meal will come from.  

1 in 4 children in the UK is living in poverty. Two thirds of them are in a household where at least one adult is working. It isn’t right that anyone lives in poverty, but for children this can have a profound effect on their future as well as their wellbeing in the here and now.

Recently, it was former prime minister Gordon Brown sounding the alarm. Last week, the Child Poverty Action Group has shown the extent of the gap between what a working family might earn and what it needs for a “no-frills” life. The cry may be being heard, but a childhood can be all but over by the time action is taken. 

What is particularly appalling about the rising tide of child poverty, like pensioner poverty, is that until very recently it had been falling. Twenty years ago a third of children lived in poverty - this fell to 27% in 2011/12 and now it is back up again to 30%.  

The risk of poverty for children is not shared equally.  BME children, the children of migrant parents, disabled children or those living in a home with a disabled adult have an increased risk of living in financial hardship. 52% of Bangladeshi children are living in poverty and 45% of Black children, and that simply isn’t right.

For too many parents, particularly those from minority ethnic backgrounds, the challenges of balancing caring with earning, in work that can often be insecure, low paid and with few progression prospects, increase the risk of being in poverty. It is the combination of Government decisions removing the anchor of social security, combined with flat wages, and increasing housing costs that have adversely affected the lives of over four million children in the UK.  

With predictions that this will rise to 5 million by 2022, reducing child poverty must be a priority for this Government and any that want to follow it as the focus comes back to domestic issues after Brexit.  

A significant factor in the rise has been the 2015 freeze on benefits and tax credits for working families for four years. Cuts to the Work Allowance in Universal Credit, currently being rolled out across the country, have compounded this and penalised those on low incomes who are trying to build a better life through work. 

Families in poverty need action, not words. It is the moral duty of the sitting government to lead the way. The Opposition also must be hot on their heels, ensuring that action is swift and sufficient. 

Restoring the Work Allowance to its original level would allow working families to keep more of what they earn, protect 310,000 people in families with children from being swept into poverty, and increase the incomes of 2.5 million working families.  

We cannot allow the futures of children in low income families to be determined by disadvantaged starts in life. We can stop this and we must.

By Dr Debbie Weekes-Bernard, Policy and Research Manager, Joseph Rowntree Foundation