Government fiddles while child poverty crisis ignites

Most people would agree that as individuals and as a society we should do all we can to protect children. One of the latest internet videos to go viral showed how hard-wired this instinct is in us. A number of strangers were filmed giving their coats to a young boy sitting alone at a bus stop without a jacket in freezing weather in Norway. Of the 12 people who approached him, only three did not offer their jacket, scarf or gloves. The video was filmed using hidden cameras by the charity SOS Children’s Villages to see if passers-by would donate their jackets and was designed to raise awareness of the charity’s winter campaign to collect coats and blankets for children in Syria. It seems most people want to help, especially if presented directly with children’s problems. The Government’s failure to present a determined strategy to combat child poverty is therefore deeply disappointing because it ignores the plight over 2 million children are facing in Britain today.

Far from being a hidden problem, the pernicious effects of growing up in poverty have been well documented. In terms of health, children from low income families are more likely to die at birth or in infancy and suffer chronic illness during childhood. Educationally, children from poorer backgrounds lag behind at all stages. By age 3, poorer children are estimated to be, on average, nine months behind children from wealthier backgrounds and by 16, children receiving free school meals achieve 1.7 grades lower at GCSE. That’s not to mention the effect on children’s self-esteem due to the stigmatisation associated with poverty. Recent research from The Children Society found that 55% of children who identified their families as “not well off at all” felt embarrassed by this. Most pertinently, poverty in childhood leads to the perpetuation of poverty in adulthood.

The Coalition Government pledged to continue the previous Government’s work on this issue, with the aim of ending child poverty by 2020. However the impact of the Great Recession and Government changes to the benefits system have had an adverse effect on the number of children being drawn into poverty. The independent Institute for Fiscal Studies has estimated that child poverty will rise by 400,000 during this parliament and 900,000 by the end of the decade, from 2.3 million in 2011/12 to 3.2 million in 2020/21.

Children charities, amongst others, had hoped the strategy published this week by the Government would lead to a renewed focus on tackling the growing problem. However a fundamental disagreement between the Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan and the Chancellor, George Osborne about the way child poverty should be measured and therefore resources allocated, resulted in a threadbare document which mostly recycled policies that had already been announced. Understandably this has left representatives of children and their rights exasperated in the extreme. Alan Milburn, chairman of the Government’s own Commission on Social Mobility and Child Poverty, described the strategy as “beyond Whitehall farce” and a “serious missed opportunity.” Neema Sharma of children’s charity Barnados, said “we need major surgery to tackle poverty, not the sticking-plaster solutions offered by the Government”. The message is clear. What poor children need is urgent action to tackle their pressing needs, not more political navel-gazing.