Renewed fight needed to beat child poverty
7:00am Monday 17th March 2014 in Features
A RENEWED drive is needed to end child poverty, three experts say today.
Fifteen years ago on Tuesday, Tony Blair set out his vision of ending child poverty within 20 years, but despite early progress his deadline now looks unachievable.
Writing in The Press today, a local head teacher, a national campaigner and a policy expert set out their vision for reviving the ambition and making meaningful progress.
John Tomsett, head teacher of Huntington School, says education and engendering aspiration in young people is vital.
He writes: "If students attain five A*-C grades in their GCSEs, including English and mathematics, they have the one thing a good education gives you - choice."
Moussa Haddad, of the Child Poverty Action Group, says ending child poverty is "eminently achievable" but more effort is needed, while Helen Barnard of the York-based Joseph Rowntree Foundation says efforts so far have neglected to tackle living costs and low wages.
Tony Blair set out his aims in the 1999 Beveridge Lecture. Read his lecture here: Tony Blair Child Poverty Speech (5).doc
John Tomsett, head teacher of Huntington School in York, argues that the best care we can provide for York’s poorest children is a truly great education.
York is a wonderful place to live if you are a child, as long as you are not one of the 4,575 children living in poverty in our city.
York is great for children, as long as you are not one of the 3,335 children living in poverty in York’s one parent households.
York has lots to offer children, as long as you are not one of the children living in poverty in one of the five York wards which have higher than national levels of poverty.
Living in poverty as a child is a grim business no matter how beautiful the setting. What good is the Minster if you never have breakfast?
So what if York is the UK’s third largest tourist attraction if you have no school uniform to wear?
You may love trains, but if your mum cannot pay the bus fare you may never see inside the National Railway Museum.
So much of the poverty in York is hidden; it takes a trained eye and some inside information to spot it, but it is there and stubbornly refuses to go away. As a Headteacher I see signs of poverty in many subtle ways.
These past three years the number of our families claiming Free School Meals has risen significantly; more children than ever before wear recycled school uniform; there has been a growing number of parents quietly asking for financial support for school trips.
From my point of view the key to lifting children out of poverty is to engender in them an aspiration to succeed at school. We have to make the school experience truly inspirational for all our students and especially for those who come from families living in poverty.
As a head teacher the best thing I can do for children in poverty is appoint the best teachers and make sure that those teachers teach as well as they can every single working day!
I keep telling my staff that the best care we can provide for our students living in poverty is five good GCSE grades when they reach sixteen. As far as I am concerned it does not matter where you are from, there is no limit to what you can achieve if you put your mind to it.
If all our students attains five A*-C grades in their GCSEs, including English and mathematics, then they have the one thing a good education gives you – CHOICE!
At the end of the play Educating Rita, when Rita has finally completed her university Education at the age of twenty-six, Frank, her tutor, asks her what she will do next from her list of options. “I’ll choose” is her reply and it is the whole point of the play.
Education gives Rita a choice about the next stage of her life. Similarly, when our students look for jobs on the World Wide Web I want them to be able to choose from the whole lot on offer.
Over the next three decades the jobs market will need increasingly well-trained workers. A recently published report by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills concluded that
“Workers will need to constantly gain new skills throughout their work life.”
It is even more important for our young people, especially our poorest, to be well educated and to realise that they will have to learn new skills repeatedly during their working lives.
Our eleven year olds will finish working in the year 2073. It is hard to imagine what the world of work will be like that far into the future; if we look back 59 years we would be in the year 1955, mini transistor radios were the new big thing, Elvis were top of the charts and Lego was invented!
I want the education we provide to give our students power over their own lives. This is a crucial point: I want them to stand on their own two feet and choose.
What I do not want to do is claim that this way of life or that way of life is better; they have to decide what is best for them. What I have to give them is the capacity to make that choice.
The worst thing we can do is be judgemental about our students who live in poverty. They have to make the decisions to aspire to attain a great education and go on to secure great jobs.
We can work with our poorest families to appreciate the value of a decent education and to aspire to great things, on their terms, in their communities.
Ultimately, every single one of us in York’s schools must strive tirelessly, with humility, to provide our young people living in poverty with a truly great education so that they can choose for themselves the way they live their lives.
Moussa Haddad of the Child Poverty Action Group says more must be done to prevent poverty in the first place.
The picture is not promising. Under current policies, the child poverty target is likely to be missed by a long way. Not only that, but the progress made since Blair’s historic pledge could be all but wiped out by increases in poverty between now and 2020. Understanding what is driving this failure is a crucial part of rectifying it.
The biggest factor behind these projected rises is cuts to support for families with children. A dizzying array of freezes, below inflation increases and outright cuts to tax credits, child benefit, housing support and out-of-work benefits is taking billions out of the pockets of parents on low incomes. Child benefit alone will have fallen in value by 15 per cent over the course of this Parliament.
Cuts to services like children’s centres, when the evidence is clear that the early years of a child’s development are the most crucial for her chances in education and employment, make it more likely that today’s poor children will grow up to be tomorrow’s poor parents.
Reversing these cuts and restoring the value of financial support for parents is, therefore, an obvious place to start if we’re serious about the legally-binding 2020 target to end child poverty.
This must play a major role in any child poverty strategy. CPAG has analysed how child poverty rates vary before and after taxes and benefits across the EU. In 26 out of 27 countries, poverty is lower after redistribution than before.
There are two important lessons here for the UK. First, in even those countries with the best starting points, family benefits play a big role in tackling poverty. Second, the UK’s starting point is so bad that we require social security to do a huge amount of the ‘heavy lifting’ on reducing poverty.
In other words, we need to do more to prevent poverty in the first place. The picture here is complex: we need to help more parents into work, but we also need that work to be secure, well-paid, and to fit around family life.
Parents need affordable childcare and fair rents. But no single wage, including the living wage, can account for the extra costs faced by families with children, and so family benefits must remain part of the solution.
The majority of tax and benefits spending distributes money across an individual’s lifetime, rather than from rich to poor. This is about seeing children as being the responsibility of society as a whole, as well as being its future workforce and a social good.
Nor can you trade off present and future poverty. Investing in early years services and education are vital for the life chances of children, especially those born into poverty. But household income is a key determinant of how children experience those services – what good is an excellent school when a child goes home to stressed parents and has nowhere to do her homework? Even ignoring the morality of accepting child poverty today for in exchange for social mobility, such a trade-off fails on its own terms.
Ending child poverty is eminently achievable. Countries like Denmark, Belgium and Slovakia put our efforts to shame, and show that poverty is policy responsive.
The kind of policies we need are those which prevent people from becoming poor, which use progressive tax to invest in family incomes and services for children, and which fix markets so that they provide decent, secure jobs and affordable housing. We only need to look at other countries – or to our own past achievements – to see what’s possible. All that is needed is the political will.
Helen Barnard of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation sets out the organisation's vision
Fifteen years ago this week, Tony Blair committed his government to ‘end child poverty in a generation’, At the time, 23 per cent of children lived in poverty, falling to 17 per cent in 2012. However, child poverty is predicted to rise to 24 per cent by 2020.
We define poverty as being when people do not have enough resources (particularly material resources) to meet their minimum needs. Income is not the only resource which matters, but our research shows that it is vital and has a knock on effect for many of the other things that children need, emotional and social development.
Children who grow up in poverty are more likely to have poor mental and physical health and be unemployed or work in poorly paid insecure jobs. Child poverty costs the UK £29 billion each year in extra spending on public services and lower earnings by adults who grew up in poverty.
Two policies played a big part in the fall in child poverty in the first few years after Blair’s pledge: getting more parents into work (particularly lone parents) and topping up families’ incomes with tax credits. Successive governments have also focused on other policies, such as childcare and education. Two big areas were missed out by this approach: improving wages and reducing living costs.
Our research shows that we need to take concerted action across a wide range of areas. We are currently developing our own Anti-Poverty Strategy for the UK. For it, we have commissioned 30 evidence reviews on the areas which need to be considered including: personal relationships, disability, mental health, gender, work, pay, education, social networks, homelessness, migration, credit and debt, health and social care, childcare, religion, benefits and others.
A new strategy needs to help the broad range of people in poverty. This includes the majority of families in poverty who do not have ‘chaotic lives’ but simply can not secure an income which covers their minimum costs; and those with complex and severe problems (such as problem drug and alcohol use and homelessness).
Five areas require much more large scale action than we have seen so far:
- Better jobs not just more jobs. Local Enterprise Partnerships, Local Authorities, Jobcentre Plus and others need to work with employers to decrease the number of low skilled, low paid jobs and create real routes out of such jobs.
- Much more high quality childcare which is vital to children’s development and education.
- Lower living costs, especially childcare, housing and energy.
- Tackle discrimination, particularly against disabled people, women and ethnic minority groups.
- A version of Universal Credit which retains the benefits of simplifying the system and is designed so that working (and working more hours) always pays.
Finally, we need to look beyond child poverty and think about poverty across all ages. Child poverty has been a popular focus for two reasons. Children are more easily portrayed as ‘deserving victims’ than adults, and therefore it can be easier to garner popular and political support for action to help them. In addition, childhood poverty affects children’s development and future life chances, including their ability to pay tax and their need for public services.
Therefore there is self-interest for society as a whole to ensure that children grow up in circumstances that enable them to flourish. However, we believe that the division between ‘child’ poverty and poverty among other age groups is false and damaging.
Poverty affects the current well-being, health, and future resilience of all ages, not only children. Adults who spend long periods in poverty are often left needing publically-funded support and with a lower ability to work and pay tax. Poverty earlier in life also greatly affects people’s capacity to support themselves when older (through a pension or savings).
And of course, many younger adults will go on to become parents themselves. Poverty as a young adult and while pregnant affects children’s development even before birth. We don’t just need a better child poverty strategy: we need a new poverty strategy for all ages.
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