Nearly 4 million children live in poverty in the UK. Jack Oughton asks why things are getting worse, not better
Think of child poverty and you don’t necessarily think of the UK. Yet the UK has one of the highest rates of child poverty in the developed world. After housing costs, nearly 4 million British children live in poverty, says the charity End Child Poverty. What’s more, 59 per cent of these kids live in a household where at least one adult works, and, whereas one in 10 children lived in poverty in 1979, by 1998 that figure had jumped to one in three.
But it’s not just these families and their children who suffer. Economically, it hits us all. A recent study claims that by 2020 £35bn annually, about 3 per cent of the country’s GDP, might be expended on services that deal with poverty and lost in tax revenues from families too poor to pay them.
Tim Nichols, a campaigner for Child Poverty Action Group, believes there are socioeconomic reasons why child poverty is increasing in the UK. ‘Wages are stagnating,’ he says. ‘Unemployment and underemployment are still very high, inflation is high, especially for basics such as housing, food, utilities and transport, and the government has made low-income families the main target of its austerity agenda with its programme of £22 billion worth of cuts to social support.’
Graham Whitham, UK policy advisor to Save the Children, agrees, and believes parents are certainly not to blame. ‘Far too many things are stacked against parents and children living in poverty,’ he says. ‘So often we work with parents who, despite their best efforts, face a multitude of barriers – high childcare costs, low pay, insecure work, closure of vital services, cuts to benefits and tax credits.’
And conflicting messages in the media don’t help. ‘Parents are bombarded with confusing messages about their roles,’ says June O’Sullivan, CEO of The London Early Years Foundation. ‘One minute they’re encouraged to work and then told they’re told it will damage children. We need some coherence.’
So what can be done improve the lives of children living on the breadline? If we can understand the socioeconomic causes, can we come up effective solutions? Nushra Mansuri, a professional officer at the British Association of Social Workers, believes we need to change social perceptions and challenge the blame culture of a socially devisive media. ‘Some of the comments made by politicians and the media grossly misrepresent individuals who may be struggling for all sorts of reasons,’ she says.
We need to exercise our democratic rights and put pressure on politicians to tackle child poverty, says Whitham. ‘We need to hold politicians to account on child poverty,’ he says. ‘Far too often politicians make decisions without considering the impact on children, particularly the poorest children in this country.’
But we shouldn’t just leave it to politicians. We can all get involved. Carmel McConnell, founder of Magic Breakfast, suggests getting involved with children directly. ‘Are there schools locally that could use your help? Are there reading schemes, breakfast clubs, governor groups that you could get involved with?’
Child poverty is unacceptable in an age of plenty, and where, recession or not, the gap between the haves and have-nots continues to widen. In 1999 Tony Blair’s government vowed to make child poverty history by 2020. As of 2013, we’re way off target. But we still have time to change things for the better. Consider simple things such as volunteering your time and skills, supporting charities such as Magic Breakfast, writing to your MP and challenging the blame culture. The government can’t beat child poverty alone, but together we can all make a difference.