Recently, Keir Starmer refused to say that he would abolish the two child benefit cap, if he were to become prime minister. Consequently, he has faced an angry backlash from many sections of the Labour party and child poverty charities, particularly as he had previously said he would scrap it. For many this is another U-turn, one of several, as noted by Claire Jones, which he has tried to justify by the need to maintain rigid fiscal discipline at a time when the country’s finances are in such a parlous state.
The row rumbles on. Meanwhile the prime minister, thought to be the richest MP in parliament, boasted at PMQs about how the Conservatives in power have reduced poverty rates. Here I want to look at the problem more broadly. I would like to examine the persistence of child poverty which has continued to rise during the life of this parliament.
The reality of child poverty
Starmer’s announcement coincided with a major three-year academic study on the effects of the two child benefit cap on families with three or more children. The study found that the policy had actually “induced poverty” and caused “major hardship and anxiety”, while failing to meet its own objectives, with no positive incentive effect on employment nor a reduction in fertility.
The current statistics show the size and scale of the problem:
- There were 4.2 million children living in poverty in the UK in 2021-22. That’s 29% of children, or nine in a classroom of 30.2.
- 44% of children living in lone-parent families are in poverty. Lone parents, especially women, face a higher risk of poverty due to the lack of an additional earner, low rates of maintenance payments, gender inequality in employment and pay, and childcare costs.
- Children from black and minority ethnic groups are more likely to be in poverty: 48% are now in poverty, compared with 25% of children in white British families.
- Work does not provide a guaranteed route out of poverty in the UK: 71% of children growing up in poverty live in households where at least one person works.
- Children in larger families are at a far greater risk of living in poverty: 42% of children living in families with three or more children do so.
There is rarely a single cause of poverty. Poorly paid, insecure jobs, inadequate benefits, high rents, the increasing cost of living, including the escalating price of essentials, all play a part in a situation where families simply do not have the resources to meet their needs.
Ambition and positive change
In 1999, the then prime minister, Tony Blair, set out an ambitious 20-year plan to end child poverty. This included a comprehensive strategy and investment in children, which did lead to a substantial reduction. Between 1999 and 2010 the number of British children living in “relative” poverty fell from 3.4 to 2.6 million and some two million children had moved out of “absolute” poverty.
Under this key initiative, a family was deemed “poor” if its income was less than 60% of the median for a family of its size. The measures taken included increases in benefits, tax credits, the introduction of the National Minimum Wage, Sure Start, increased financial support for childcare, significant increases in education spending and an expansion of the number of young people, including those from more economically disadvantaged backgrounds, going on to higher education.
Promises, promises, promises …. austerity, austerity, austerity
The coalition government between 2010 and 2015 said it was “firmly committed to the goal of ending child poverty in the UK by 2020”. However, after the 2015 general election, with a new Conservative government in power, the target was dropped, and the Child Poverty Act 2010 repealed. This had set a new set of legal duties for government which had to meet four sets of targets to end child poverty by 2020.
With the introduction of the Welfare Reform Act 2012 and the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016, the targets, measures, reporting duties and requirements for national and local child poverty strategies were scrapped. The focus shifted to saving money and encouraging more people into work with the introduction of benefit caps, conditionality and more punitive sanctions.
Consequently, the number of children fed by foodbanks more than tripled and the numbers of children in poverty rose significantly.
The grand architect of this new age of austerity was George Osborne, the chancellor, and then his successor Phillip Hammond. Their programme was designed to eliminate the budget deficit by introducing stringent cuts in public spending. The effect on the most vulnerable was marked as decades of progress were being unravelled amid weak wage growth and rising inflation.
Sacrifice, struggle, deprivation
The impact of the Covid pandemic and the ongoing cost-of-living crisis has been considerable. Recent research undertaken by Loughborough University and published by EndChildPoverty.org provides further insights into the rise in child poverty. As Joseph Howes, chair of the End Child Poverty Coalition, reminds us:
“Behind the statistics released today are families living in cold homes, relying on food banks and children going without essentials like coats and shoes. No child should ever have to experience this.”
It is not just material deprivation itself but the wider psychological ill effects that mar young lives: living in constant insecurity, permanent anxiety, feeling shame, sometimes being teased and bullied in school, missing out on enjoyable experiences such as school trips, holidays and taking part in sport and creative activities. These delightful aspects of growing up which many take for granted are frequently denied to one in four children.
Endchildpoverty gives an example of two friends, Amelia and Naomi. They share their different experiences of poverty and the impact it has had here.
Poverty is not inevitable: solutions
In the past, significant intervention has worked to reduce child poverty. The formation of the welfare state after the Second World War sought to tackle the “five giants on the road of reconstruction”, of Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness. Blair’s subsequent mission to end child poverty was admirable, but ultimately it was not realised. Since then, the political and economic climate has changed radically, but this should not prevent efforts to remove this societal scourge.
Poverty is a complex and intractable issue. Some remedies are long term, but important action could be taken now to protect those in need. Significantly, the political will is not there, with no current strategy to tackle the problem. At the same time, this government protects and sustains the richest in society. For all the fanfare of the ‘levelling up’ policy trumpeted by Boris Johnson, stark regional disparities in inequality remain. Children go to school hungry; some don’t even have a bed to sleep in; others live in damp and overcrowded conditions. But there are measures which could change this.
Immediate actions include:
- Scrap the two-child limit
- Abolish the benefit cap
- Raise child benefit by £20 a week per child
- Roll out universal free school meals
Furthermore, the benefits system needs urgent reform to end delays, reduce waiting times for universal credit and end the overzealous application of sanctions which can leave claimants utterly destitute.
Work should be better paid and more secure. Better access to education and more support are needed to lift people out of poverty, to end chronic unemployment and to break the cycle of persistent poverty. The childcare system should also be improved to offer affordable and accessible childcare with a generous entitlement to increased free hours of childcare offered to all.
Simply ending the benefit cap would lift 270,000 families out of poverty. This would cost an estimated £1.4bn but at the same time would relieve the strain on health, education, inadequate housing etc. So, it makes economic sense and is one step towards mending broken Britain.
We are a rich country; we should not have these levels of child poverty. Every child deserves a safe and happy childhood with the opportunity to realise their potential. Rather than withdrawing support from families with children, there is a clear case for investing more in children during this formative life stage when the needs of households are exceptionally high.
The author is a teacher (Ed.)
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