Child poverty is back on the agenda. New reports highlight how we have made no progress improving the number of children living in poverty and how the COVID-19 pandemic, has catapulted even more children into this crisis.
In 2018 I gave a TEDxTalk about the impact of child poverty and what shocked me the most was just how many people living in poverty were actually working.
The UK is the 5th richest economy in the world yet 14.5 million people are living in poverty (with a household income less than 60% of the UK average).
Of these, 4.2m children currently live in poverty, with those under the age of five the hardest hit. Families with two parents working full time, at the national minimum wage, are still 11% short of the income needed to raise a child.
Since the pandemic, the Legatum Institute suggested a further 690,000 people have been pushed into poverty of whom 120,000 are children. These families struggle to balance insecure work, low pay and a patchy welfare system while trying to cover the cost of essentials like soaring rents, food, fuel bills, transport and childcare. The House of Lords itself said that Universal Credit pushes families even further into poverty.
Poverty is a scourge. It costs families and children, inflicting great misery on millions of children trapping them in a cycle of poverty from which most will have great difficulty escaping. It also costs society. A cautious estimate is £12 billion a year responding to the social and educational consequences of child poverty and that fails to calculate the ongoing economic costs of children failing to reach their potential. Turn it on its head and addressing child poverty could benefit the Exchequer £17 billion through increased tax receipts and reduced welfare costs.
Living in poverty can have a serious impact on a child’s health, cognition and wellbeing. Children from low-income families are less likely to do well in school. And it starts early – usually in the form of a limited vocabulary, language, oracy and reading skills and less assured social skills which challenges their educational success from the earliest age.
Poverty also has an emotional drag. Older children report feeling ashamed and unhappy and worry about their parents. Disadvantaged children are 4.5 times more likely to develop severe mental health problems by age eleven (compared to their well-off peers). Children in inadequate housing have been shown to be more at risk of respiratory illnesses and meningitis. Those in the most disadvantaged areas can expect 20 fewer years of good health in their lives than children in places with more resources.
Last week our attention was drawn to the invidious nature of child poverty. The End Child Poverty Campaign got the backing of 80 organisations to support a letter to the Chancellor pleading that he includes a plan to end child poverty in his budget.
The Mayor of London also provided a report which found that childcare providers across London will struggle to survive 2021 due to the challenges from the pandemic which has caused significant overheads as well as substantial reductions in income. Unsurprisingly, those in deprived areas were hardest hit with a staggering 70% of nurseries in disadvantaged areas ‘struggling’ compared with 59% in more affluent areas. That is a huge blow for those children and their families who won’t be able to access high quality Early Years education which has been shown to be very effective at reducing the attainment gap – nor will they have accessible and affordable childcare to help them work.
During the recent public health crisis, we saw children arrive at nursery hungry, anxious, inadequately clothed and developmentally delayed. They brought with them their equally stressed parents, living hand to mouth in precarious financial situations. We raised money to double their funded hours.
Whilst some may respond by blaming the families and consider their poverty to be the result of feckless behaviour, many care brilliantly for their children but constantly struggling to make ends meet. This undoubtedly puts pressure on the ability of some parents to nurture their children.
Last summer we found ourselves raising money for basics and pairing up with organisations such as Sal’s Shoes to source winter shoes for our children. We expanded our Food Banks and the delivery of meal kits. We extended the hours available to children so we could give them more education and a hot lunch. Their improvement was impressive. Encouraged by Marcus Rashford’s campaign, we wrote to the Prime Minister and the Childcare Minister to point out they had forgotten about the Under 5s when it came to accessing holiday food vouchers because they cannot claim free school meals in nursery and therefore are outside the system.
We have a duty of care to our youngest citizens. Consecutive governments have all talked about the importance of the Early Years and funded research to support the impact of early intervention, yet no one will fund it properly. The pandemic is proving to be the last straw for many settings. What else needs to be said? A combination of redundancies, income cuts and increased costs mean the UK’s poorest families are getting poorer and child poverty is on the rise. Nelson Mandela reminded us that there is no keener revelation of a society’s soul than how it treats its children. Right now, we should all be ashamed.