Published on June 11th, 2014 |
by Laura Collings
Image © Paolo Margari 2007
Child Poverty UK: Why aren’t we talking about it?
‘‘By 2020 child poverty would be around the highest level ever recorded in the UK and the highest of a generation’’
(Save the Children: A Fair Start for Every Child 2014)
It is safe to say the political establishmnt along with mainstream media has spent the past couple of weeks in a haze of panic, or jubilation, regarding UKIP’s strong performance at the European elections. Meanwhile, in the background, Save the Children released its latest report ‘A Fair Start for Every Child’, which claims that 5 million UK children will live in poverty by 2020, if government cuts to welfare continues. This would see an increase in child poverty of 41% up from the current number of 3.5 million.
Now, UKIP presents the biggest shake up to our political system for the last 100 years, and duly warrants its current level of debate. Unfortunately, what its prominence does reflect is a common theme in discussions about child poverty in the UK, and that is, that there is always something more important to talk about. It is not that the issue of child poverty has been entirely bereft of political attention, in fact numerous commitments have been made to tackle it, but the problem being that these commitments have been all too easily pushed aside.
Tony Blair declared in 1999 that Labour would halve the number of children in poverty by 2010 and eradicate it completely by 2020. While we saw progress – 900,000 children lifted over the poverty line during Labour’s tenure in government – it was nowhere near the targets set. Nonetheless it was an historic move, one that made child poverty a political priority, and saw the commitment to end it enshrined in law under the Child Poverty Act 2010. By 2011, Iain Duncan Smith, work and pensions secretary, noted that the coalition government would be taking a step back from the 2020 target to develop a new set of indicators for child poverty. All the while reiterating the governments continued commitment to ending child poverty. Fast-forward to the present and we now face child poverty numbers that are decidedly bleaker than they were 15 years ago.
It might be temping to write off our current predicament as a bad after effect from a difficult few recession-hit years, however, the UK can actually lay claim to at least three decades of creeping inequality, with steadily rising numbers throughout the 1980’s, culminating in the UK holding the highest levels of child poverty in Europe by 1997. So no, the Save the Children report is not a flash in the pan or simply a reflection of a country struggling on the road to economic recovery. Begging the question as to why such a long-standing issue with wide reaching ramifications for millions of British children is not at the forefront of discussion?
Lisa Harker, child poverty adviser to the Labour government during the Blair years, noted in an interview with The Guardian in 2006 that ‘‘the ending of child poverty is not going to happen until there is far more public pressure for change’’. The real challenge to tackling child poverty in the UK hinges on galvanising public support for greater intervention, pushing political parties to turn promises into progress. One key barrier to capturing that support is to overcome a prevailing skepticism about the existence of real poverty in the UK. You only have to read the comments section at the larger media outlets who ran articles on the Save the Children report to see that for some, unless children are running bare foot in rags through a scene depicting Dickensian London then the response is; poverty, what poverty? To move forward with the debate on child poverty we must dispel the myth that for British children poverty means not having access to the latest iPhone or Playstation.
Skepticism surrounding UK child poverty is wholly understandable, because in the 7th largest economy in the world it should be profoundly unfathomable that 3.5 million children live in poverty let alone the projected 5 million by the end of the decade. Nevertheless I would have hoped that as a nation we had progressed further than using illustrations from Oliver Twist in a game of spot the difference as an indicator of poverty levels. Yes, when we speak about UK poverty we talk in terms of relative rather than absolute, but this does not mean that we should be blind to huge levels of inequality in the UK, irrespective of the way we choose to measure it.
Until we as a nation begin to talk more honestly about the existence, and impact of poverty upon children in the UK, we will continue to receive empty promises from the political elite. A government spokesperson’s response to the Save the Children report simply stated “The government is committed to ending child poverty by tackling its root causes as part of our long term economic plan”. It is hard to feel like we haven’t heard this all before. For now it seems child poverty will assume a position at the back of a long list of issues considered more important.
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