Child Poverty in the UK:
A New Approach
It is estimated that 1 in 4 children in the UK live in poverty. That’s an astonishing statistic and not obviously apparent in everyday life. In Wales, the numbers are estimated to be even higher (1 in 3). I’m not necessarily talking about extreme poverty, such as that seen in the developing world but children who fail to reach their full potential due to lack of financial means. For example, the child who never attends any school trips because the parents simply cannot afford it, or survives on potato waffles, not through choice, but simply because the family can not afford fruit and vegetables.
The definition of poverty is a tricky one. Peter Townsend a renowned sociologist who helped found the Child Poverty Action Group defined it as follows;
“Individuals, families and groups in the population can be said to be in poverty when they lack resources to obtain the type of diet, participate in the activities and have the living conditions and amenities which are customary, or at least widely encouraged and approved, in the societies in which they belong”
Poverty is therefore very much defined by the society in which a person lives. However as scientists and politicians, we like things to be measurable and therefore the UK government has previously used the terms ‘relative’ and ‘absolute’ poverty to define poverty within our nation.
‘Absolute poverty’ indicates that a household lacks the resources necessary for basic subsistence and is currently defined as a household with income below 60% of the 2010/11 median household income. ‘Relative poverty’ is defined as a household with income below 60% of the current median household income. This is all fairly arbitrary unless you measure the impact that low income is having on these households.
Poverty affects people in many ways and we know that once a child is stuck in it’s vicious cycle, it can be difficult to escape, resulting in lasting educational and health inequalities. For example, if you meet the criteria for free school meals, you are 28% less likely to obtain 5 A*-C grades at GCSE, having long term implications for earning potential. A boy growing up in one of Britain’s most deprived areas may be outlived by his peers elsewhere by up to 9 years and have longer periods of ill health to look forward to.
Anybody can fall into poverty. Major life events such as illness, loss of a job or family upset can all tip families into financial difficulties. However certain groups are recognised as being at higher risk of poverty than others. These include families with multiple children, single parent families and those families where one or more parents are not in work. Disability also correlates strongly with poverty with households containing at least one disabled member, being 30% more likely to experience it. Families from ethnic minorities are also a massive 64% more likely to experience poverty as well as those living in inner London.
In 2010, the Child Poverty Act was created, enshrining into law a government’s legal duty to tackle Child Poverty. Several specific targets were set with an ultimate aim to reduce those children both in relative poverty and absolute poverty as well as targeting maternal deprivation. Months later a new coalition government was formed and highly controversial welfare changes were introduced including the so dubbed ‘bedroom tax’ and a cap on overall benefits.
In 2015, figures were released showing the first rise in UK child poverty in 10 years. The government’s response was to criticise the very definition of child poverty, highlighting its failure to address the root causes of poverty such as entrenched ‘worklessness’, family breakdown, and drug and alcohol dependency”. The “Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016” has now been given royal assent focusing on areas such as the ‘living wage’ and reducing unemployment and a new child poverty strategy is in place.
The new child poverty strategy has three specific aims. The first being supporting families into work and increasing wages, followed by the improvement of living standards as well as addressing the issue of social mobility (ensuring poor children don’t become poor adults by investing in their education). It’s worth reading the executive summary at the beginning, which explains how they plan to go about this, from help-to-work schemes to breakfast clubs and parenting classes.
You might well be asking yourself; What can I do as a paediatrician? Besides a little political lobbying, I suppose the first step is recognition of families in need of financial support and appropriate signposting to other services. The Citizens Advice Bureau is a useful resource especially when families are struggling with debt and the gov.uk website can help families navigate the benefits minefield. The Healthy Start scheme can provide low income families with vouchers for fruit and vegetables and most large towns/cities will have food and clothing banks. It’s worth finding out what’s available locally. Family Action is a registered charity that provides practical, financial and emotional support to those experiencing poverty and disadvantage. They’re involved with everything from parenting classes in the early years to providing educational grants to older children.
As the numbers of children in poverty continue to escalate it’s definitely a space to watch and it’s important to know what help is out there. A population based approach is needed; Let’s hope the government put their money where their mouth is and that end outcomes for these children begin to improve soon.