a) What are the main causes of child poverty in the UK today? The United Kingdom is widely regarded as having one of the worst rates of child poverty in the industrialised world. This sentiment was echoed by the findings of the 2007 UNICEF Innocenti Report – a comprehensive assessment of the lives
and well-being of children and adolescents in economically advanced nations – which ultimately concluded that of the 21 countries involved, the UK boasted the most alarming child poverty statistics. The End Child Poverty study conducted in 2008 revealed that approximately four million children were living in poverty in the UK.
Tess Ridge (2004) points out that there are several key factors that serve to make children particularly vulnerable to experiencing poverty.
Close to three million children live in lone-parent families and they are particularly at risk of experiencing poverty during their childhood (Rowlingson and McKay, 2002). Children brought up in such an environment are likely to be part of the means-tested benefits system. This in turn increases the chances of a child being subjected to levels of poverty for a long period of time. J. Miller (1989) notes that the fact the majority of lone parents are female and in low paid employment is reflective of gender discrepancies within marriage and within the labour force. Bradbury et al (2001) further supports this argument by claiming children in lone-mother families display higher levels of poverty than children part of two parent households.
Studies focusing on ethnic minority children and poverty are sparse. However, Adelman and Bradshaw’s (1998) evaluation of the Family Resources Study revealed that Pakistani and Bangladeshi children are victims of incredibly high poverty rates with approximately 80% of children living below 50% of median income poverty line after housing costs. Ridge (2004) explains that racial discrimination also contributes heavily to childhood poverty amongst ethnic groups. Prejudice in the workplace leave ethnic minority groups susceptible to low pay and unemployment; the risk of unemployment for people from ethnic communities is three or four times greater than that of white people (Howard et al, 2001).
The links between child poverty and disability are plainly apparent. According to Gordon and Heslop (1999), families with a disabled child are among some of the ‘poorest of the poor’. Poverty also affects those children living in families where there are adults with disabilities and long-term sickness. A survey undertaken by the Department of Work and Pensions in 2002 showed 76% of children in households where illness or disability was present were receiving a key benefit (be it Incapacity Benefit, Severe Disablement Allowance, or Income Support) for two or more years (DWP, 2002).
Household employment status has also proved to be a major factor of poverty affecting children. In 1995/96, 54% of all children in poverty were living in workless households (Gregg et al, 1999). Unemployment within families not only brings economic
disadvantage but can also have negative implications on a child’s aspirations and social development.
In sum, it is clear by careful consideration of the above factors, that these are not isolated risks but risks that are intrinsically linked and in many cases underpinned. Any policies intended to prevent child poverty must tackle these risk factors head on, focusing specifically on the surroundings and circumstances in which poverty stricken children inhabit.
b) What has the government done to alleviate child poverty?
The Labour governments rise to power in 1997 brought a shift in policy towards addressing child poverty. In 1999, Tony Blair pledged to eradicate child poverty within 20 years. Consequently, levels of policy activity dramatically increased and an expansive programme of welfare reform was introduced in order to curb child poverty. According to Ridge (2004) these policies fell into three broad areas:
support for children, predominately through educational means
support for parents, predominately aimed at making work pay, childcare and parenting schemes
changes in financial support for children and families via the tax and benefit system.
In order to keep up to speed with such policies, the government committed itself to producing annual poverty reviews entitled Opportunity for All. These reports outlined actions that would be put into place to assist in the fight against poverty looking in particular at improving literacy and numeracy skills whilst reducing levels of truancy, school exclusions and teenage pregnancies.
Schemes such as Sure Start in England and Wales were introduced. This initiative was designed with the aim of giving children the best possible start in life. Gordon Brown (2000) proclaimed the initial goal was to have 250 local programmes in place by 2002. This figure was reached and to date, there are over 500 centres in operation.
For teenagers aged 16-18, Education Maintenance Allowances were launched in 2004 in order to encourage children from low income families to stay on in education after the school leaving age. As of 2008, children whose families earned less than ?20, 817 per annum were entitled to ?30 per week to cover the cost of their tuition. (http://ema.direct.gov.uk).
Another strategy used by the government to reduce child poverty was the introduction in 2003 of working tax credit (WTC) and child tax credit (CTC). WTC is aimed at low-income working families but also designed to entice women such as lone parents into the workplace. Essentially, it is a payment to top up the earnings of low-paid workers, including those who don’t have children. In the majority of cases, the employer pays it alongside wages or salary and the amount received is dependent on your income. In 2006, low paid workers could claim up to ?1410 for a single worker aged 25 and over and up to ?3005 for a couple earning less than ?8,000 a year. CTC offers financial support to
families regardless of their state of employment. It is also paid in addition to WTC and any child benefit funds the family may receive. The amount a family are entitled too is based on their income. In 2006, the amount for one child was ?545 a year for high earners, up to ?2420 for those on low incomes, with extra money for young children and disabled children.
According to Sloman (2007), apart from targeting support at poorer families, both the WTC and CTC are intended to improve incentives to work, by reducing the poverty trap. In simple terms, families are no longer heavily penalised through lost benefits and taxes by working.
In sum, the Labour government has actively attempted to fulfill its promise to address the issue of child poverty in the UK. This is further supported by Miller and Ridge’s (2002) assessment that children and young people in general have become much more visible in the policy process under Labour’s leadership and this in itself is a significant development.
c) How successful have they been in addressing child poverty?
In the last ten years, a plethora of polices has been sanctioned by the Labour government in the hope of reducing child poverty. Economic stability and paid employment were the focal point of the strategy designed to solve the problem. By veering clear of a benefits scheme and exploring an ever growing labour market, it was widely felt families could hoist their children from under the poverty line and ride the countries wave of economic prosperity. The rhetoric has changed: in return for a child benefit and tax credit system, the introduction of Sure Start and improvements in the education system, benefit claimants now share a collective responsibility to the state to work.
Perhaps the most important success of the last ten years is the fact that concerns about child poverty and now widely shared. This has lead to the three major parties within the UK political system recognising the issue and subsequently vowing to tackle it.
However, beneath the surface there exists a troubled tension between apprehension over child poverty and an evident disregard for high levels of inequality within the country. In turn, this has threatened to undo all the government’s hard work of the past decade. Consequently, if the government fails to addresses these inadequacies, they will forever be running the risk of taking two steps forward and one step back with any progress being made at a slow and painstaking pace.
In sum, its time for the government to step up and face the issue of child poverty. The last decade has yielded results and shows the UK has the resources to address poverty. Tony Blair made a commitment to end child poverty and his predecessors must follow through on that promise. As the Treasury Select Committee recently argued:
“The Chancellor has told us that the Government remains strongly committed to meeting the child poverty targets, but this needs to be demonstrated through firm action on tackling child poverty in the 2009 Budget, including the deployment of additional resources” (Treasury Select Committee, 2008)
While there is a political consensus that child poverty is a problem and that it needs to be ended, the government has just over ten years to deliver on a promise that could radically alter children’s lives and opportunities.
To put it bluntly, if politicians are serious about eradicating child poverty, much more needs to be done.