The truth about child poverty

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Child poverty is set to rise, but the political parties are refusing to acknowledge the dire situation, says Dr Mary Bousted.

The incidence and extent of child poverty in Britain is shocking. One in six children in Britain lives in relative poverty according to the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission’s second report, State of the Nation 2014.

Shockingly these children are likely to live in families where one of their parents is working, but not earning enough to meet their children’s needs. They are, in effect, working for their poverty. 

Children from poor families are far less likely to achieve their potential throughout their school career. They suffer disproportionately from the effects of poor and insecure housing, poor health (physical and mental), family dysfunction and breakdown. And their life experiences, which are so important to set learning and future aspirations in a meaningful context, are limited.

Yet, this report received little press coverage. If you read the newspapers you would believe that it contained only one recommendation – that the next government should ensure the best teachers have better incentives, including higher pay, to teach in the most challenging schools.

But that is only one of the Commission’s 12 key recommendations. There are other findings which contain fundamental and far-reaching economic and social implications. For example, that the UK should become a living wage country by 2025. 

Although, recent research undertaken for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) shows that inequality is set become even more entrenched, as middle level jobs are lost and more, higher and lower levels jobs are created. This stifles the ability to move into better jobs and better pay. The JRF also estimates that more than £6 billion is being spent on subsidising low pay.

Introducing Social Mobility Champions is a welcome idea, but we cannot achieve more equality and offer young people a realistic hope of fulfilling their potential if access to well-paid jobs is restricted to those at the top and to children whose families can subsidise them on prestigious but non-paying internships. We need a wide range of role models, from varying social and ethnic backgrounds, to encourage all young people to aim high.

Another major recommendation is that long-term youth unemployment should be ended by 2020 through a package of measures including half of all larger workplaces providing Apprenticeships, and a new “Day One” support service to help unemployed young people get straight back into work or education. 

Why, then, did this important report receive so little attention? And why have politicians of all persuasions done little to promote its findings? The cynic in me would say this political neglect is because the political parties are roundly criticised by the commissioners, who say they saw little immediate prospect of more progress on child poverty than in the recent past.

This is because all major parties – Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat – are committed to continuing austerity policies after the next election. 

The report’s authors argue that the effect of yet-to-be-implemented welfare cuts, and entrenched low pay, will have an even worse impact on poor children after the election than they do now. Their warning is stark: “Poverty is set to rise, not fall.”

The commissioners bleakly conclude that they shared the view of the experts who predict that 2020 will mark the end of the first decade in recent history in which absolute child poverty increases, rather than the date marking the eradication of child poverty. 

A decade of rising absolute poverty is unprecedented since records began in the 1960s. They add: “2020 could mark a watershed between an era in which for decades there have been rising living standards shared by all and a future era where rising living standards bypass the poorest in society. If that comes to pass the economic recovery will not have produced a social recovery. Social mobility, having flatlined in the latter part of the last century, would go into reverse in the first part of this century. The United Kingdom would become a permanently divided nation.”

This terrible outlook is followed by trenchant, fundamental recommendations which none of the political parties have been prepared to consider – so far-reaching would be their effect. 

The commissioners do not mince their words: “...without radical changes to the tax and benefit system to boost the incomes of poor families, there is no realistic hope of the statutory child poverty targets being met in 2020. None of the main political parties have been willing to embrace such a change nor to speak this uncomfortable truth. They are all guilty in our view of being less than frank with the public.”

It is lamentable that the 2020 child poverty targets have no chance, on current projections, of being met. Absolute levels of poverty are made worse by high levels of inequality which is an even bigger indication of social breakdown and dysfunction.

Politicians demand that schools and teachers close the achievement gap between poor children and their middle-class peers. I agree that this should be a central aim of education, but the fact remains that schools cannot close the gap on their own. 

Education policy needs to be part of a coherent whole encompassing decent housing, excellent early years services, high-quality vocational education and careers advice – and this is just part of a much longer list of what would constitute a coherent policy for ending child poverty. Schools and teachers cannot change society on their own – and to ask them to do so is politically disingenuous and dishonest.

  • Dr Mary Bousted is general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. Visit www.atl.org.uk


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