Madeleine Davies

“The turrets are made out of toilet rolls – genius!”

In Uncategorized on September 7, 2012 at 4:22 pm

“The fact is that thanks to the Welfare State and our benefits system, no child in Britain can possibly be said to be living in that kind of poverty — without food or heating — unless their parents are grossly misusing their handouts.”  

(Douglas Murray, The Henry Jackson Society think-tank, writing in the Daily Mail, September 2012)

Even with the benefits I receive, I find it hard to pay all the bills, and I cannot afford proper uniform or shoes for my son, so he gets picked on at school.”

(Jamelia 28, one child under 14 in This is Child Poverty, Citizens Advice Bureau, 2008)

“I’ve told them I won’t leave them with a childminder…They’re my children. I had them. I should obviously look after them and I understand yes, that I should be working and I shouldn’t be claiming money from the Government and what have you, but I will eventually go back to work and I’ll pay back, in my eyes, what I’ve had from them.”

(Megan, mother of 5 children under 13, Living with poverty, a review of children’s and families’ experiences of poverty, Tess Ridge, DWP, 2009)

Child poverty…in the UK?

This week, Save the Children launched, for the first time in its 93-year history, an appeal to alleviate poverty in the UK. The report, entitled “It Shouldn’t Happen Here”, included the results of a survey of children aged 8 to 16 in 35 schools across the UK and a survey of more than 5000 parents. It reported that “one in eight of the poorest children in the UK go without at least one hot meal a day”.

The next day, the backlash began. And not just in The Daily Mail. In The Times, Ross Clark wrote that Save the Children “should be ashamed of this propaganda” and claimed that the charity had “evolved from an aid charity into a political pressure group against cuts”. The thrust of the argument is that it is wrong to talk about poverty in the UK when famine causes children around the world to die of starvation.

Who is right?

My own family didn’t have HUGE amounts of money when I was growing up. In no way were we on the breadline but I can’t be alone in remembering avoiding asking for things at the end of the month, living in hand-me-down clothes and getting a My Little Pony Castle made of cardboard instead of the real thing (ok, that one might just be me).

From the time I was 12 we were a single-parent family. Dad working in an ok-ish paid job but with three kids to get through school.

But we always had enough to eat. We weren’t cold. We didn’t worry about losing the house. Are there really children in the UK who DO have to worry about these things?

That’s not the only question I set out to answer when researching this series of posts about child poverty in the UK. I also wanted to find out WHY children might be growing up in poverty. It feels like a particularly important question, given some of the messages coming from central government.

There is a passage in Labour MP Frank Field’s 2010 report on poverty that stopped me in my tracks when I first read it. It’s the bit where he refers to the staff at a branch of Tesco in East London who noticed “the changing pattern of stealing”:

“Children were now far less inclined to steal sweets. Instead, the targets were sandwiches, to assuage their hunger, and clean underwear which they also lacked.”

I find that heart-breaking.

Mr Field concludes:

“Does anyone any longer believe that this modern face of neglect will be countered by simple increases in child tax credits?”

It’s just one example of a number of voices, from across the political spectrum, suggesting that behaviour is part of the cause of poverty: inadequate, even abusive, parenting producing children unable to make the most of life’s opportunities.

As the Child Poverty Action Group puts it, “the agenda has shifted from wellbeing to well-becoming and from structure to behaviour”.

Behaviour includes, but is not limited to, worklessness, divorce and addiction. The reason I included the fourth quote at the top of this post, is that I’m interested in the reactions it might provoke. Do single mothers have a duty to go out to work to pay for their children’s upbringing?

I’ll look into these issues later in the blog.

It’s all relative

But first, I think it’s important to come back to my first question. Does child poverty exist in the UK?

Worldwide, every year, 3.1 million children die from malnutrition-related causes. That represents more than a third of all children’s deaths. One-third of all children under five  in developing countries suffer from stunted growth as a result of a lack of food.

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom is the seventh largest economy in the world, measured by GDP. The average (median) income before housing costs is £419 a week, or £21,788 a year. Have we lost perspective, bought into materialism, contracted envy and reached a point where poverty means not having an iPad, Sky or a foreign holiday once a year? I can’t be the only person who’s been on the receiving end of a rant by someone who has observed Sky dishes on council estates.

A survey carried out for the Department for Work and Pensions in 2008 found that 41% of people thought there was “very little” child poverty in Britain today.

According to the latest figures published by the Department for Work and Pensions, there are 3.6 million children living in poverty in the UK today – 27 per cent of children. Or 18 per cent before housing costs.

The figures above are based on a relative measure of poverty.

The Child Poverty Act (2010) defines an individual to be in relative poverty if his or her household’s income is below 60% of the median in that year. Essentially, relative poverty measures whether poorer households are keeping up with those on middle incomes.

But what does this mean in terms of pounds? Here’s a helpful table produced by the Child Poverty Action Group:

Family composition £/per week £/per annum
Couple
One child under 14 257 13,354
One child under 14, one child over 14 346 17,992
Lone parent
One child under 14 167 8,674
One child under 14, one child over 14 257 13,347

Remember, this is how much income households have after paying for housing.  Less than this, and you’re officially classified as poor. I’d be interested to know what people make of these figures. When the DWP conducted a survey on attitudes to poverty, it found that people were more likely to say that actual monetary amounts were enough to live on than when asked about whether “state benefits” were sufficient.

Measuring poverty in relative terms is not a perfect measure and, in recent months, there have been signs that the Government will seek other ways to measure progress in tackling child poverty. Ross Clark in The Times describes it as a “daft definition” and argues that the fact that 300,000 children were “lifted out of poverty” last year was because median incomes fell, thanks to the recession.

While I’m happy with the relative definition (I’ll explain why just below), I found it interesting to look also at an official survey exploring “material deprivation”. Some insights from this:

  • 23% of the poorest families do not have enough bedrooms for every child 10 years or over and of a different gender
  • 60% of these families cannot afford at least one week’s holiday away from home
  • 20% cannot afford to go swimming once a month
  • 16% cannot afford to go to a playground at least once a week

Whatever you think about measuring poverty in relative terms, it’s notable that all three major parties in the UK have signed up to the Child Poverty Act (which includes a pledge to reduce the number of children living in relative, as well as absolute, poverty).

I’m inclined to agree with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on this:

“How can we live our life fully when the vast majority around us can enjoy products, services and experiences which are regarded as the norm, but from which we are banned? To be excluded from the mainstream in this way is the experience of poverty, with all the stigma and shame that is attached to the condition.”

This is an idea I’ll return to throughout this blog – the idea of social exclusion, being left out, marginalised and for the children “creating stories to explain why they could not join in with activities that cost money or were inaccessible for them” (PDF) beholden to secrecy and shame.

If you want to read a persuasive case for greater income inequality, I would highly recommend reading The Spirit Level, or the summary of it here, which argues convincingly, with a wealth of academic data, that “a smaller gap between rich and poor means a happier, healthier, and more successful population”.

Fair go

However, talk about poverty and you’re also talking about opportunity and advantage. About life chances. A child born into poverty today is more likely to remain in poverty than at any time since the late 1960s.

“It is completely clear that children in poverty are more likely to grow up to be poor, and that, as far as we can tell, this link has strengthened over the last decades of the 20th century,” concluded Jo Blanden and Steve Gibbons of LSE in 2006.

This fact concerns politicians across the board. And would probably hold more weight with Ross Clark and his Daily Mail counterpart than the Save the Children campaign.

In 2010 the Labour MP Frank Field, a man not afraid to “think the unthinkable” warned in his Independent Review of Poverty and Life Chances that “life’s race is already determined for most poor children before they even begin their first day at school”.

In the UK’s poorest one-fifth of households, children’s development – their acquisition of the skills, like language, that will help them at school – soon starts to lag behind their better off peers. By the age of five, a child from the poorest background is about 11 months behind, in vocabulary development, than one from a household in the middle income range.

Field’s report suggested that the brightest five year olds from poorer homes are overtaken by the progress of their less gifted but richer peers by the time they are ten.

These are important findings, given the temptation to argue that if you work hard enough, you’ll never be poor.

I’ll be looking more at this question of early childhood development later in the blog.

Will someone please think of the children?

People want to do something about child poverty.

The latest British Social Attitudes Survey suggests that 98% view the reduction of child poverty as important.

Even if you don’t agree with the moral argument for ensuring that children do not grow up in poverty, it’s worth bearing in mind that child poverty is costly for the country as a whole.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimates that public spending to deal with “the fallout of child poverty” is about £12 billion a year. About 60% of this goes on social services (including benefits), school education and police and criminal justice. The annual cost of below-average employment rates and earnings levels among adults who grew up in poverty is about £13 billion, of which £5 billion represents extra benefit payments and lower tax revenues and £8 billion is lost earnings to individuals, affecting GDP.

“Poverty brings uncertainty and insecurity to children’s lives, sapping self-esteem and confidence and undermining children’s everyday lives and their faith in future wellbeing,” concluded Tess Ridge when she conducted her review of the experiences of children living in poverty for the DWP.

So, in conclusion, children in the UK ARE living in poverty. And it’s not just about where they fall on an income graph. They face disadvantages which mean they may live in poverty for the rest of their lives.

People recognise that this is injust.

But is it a question of money or behaviour?

I’ll be looking at this in tomorrow’s blog when I ask “IS IT ABOUT THE MONEY?”

NOTES: The Child Poverty Act (2010) commits the Government to ensure that less than 10% of children are living in relative low income households by 2020 and that less than 5% of children are to be living in absolute poverty.

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  1. Great if sad post. I think the most important point is the one you hit on at the end; the real tragedy is that huge numbers of kids in the UK will never be able to meet their potential because of the difficulties their parents have had.

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