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15 May 2015

After the election, what now for child poverty?

If the next five years aren't to see child poverty increase yet further, the government must rethink its approach.

By Javed Khan

Now the final vote has been counted and the last ballot box locked away, the real work of governing begins. When it comes to vulnerable children and their families, the new Government has a mountain to climb.

Under the Child Poverty Act (2010), the main political parties have a duty to eradicate child poverty by 2020.

Currently, 3.7 million children live in poverty in the UK. Following years where the amount of children living in hardship went down, the number is now flat-lining & looks set to rise steeply again. In fact, the Institute of Fiscal Studies predicts that by 2020 more than 32 percent of UK children will be living in poverty.

Poverty has a huge impact on the life chances of children and young people. Starting from the cradle onwards, poorer children can expect to typically lag up to 15 months behind in their vocabulary than their richer peers. At age seven, they perform far behind their classmates in ability tests.

Poorer children attain fewer good GCSEs and are more likely to be unemployed on leaving education. Once unemployed they face permanent ‘wage scarring’, which means they’ll earn less than their peers later in life too.

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Barnardo’s works with the families who struggle daily at the coal face of the UK’s stubborn poverty problem. The factors driving hardship are complex and vary from family to family.

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The recent recession, which was followed closely by a rise in the cost of living, hit the poorest particularly hard; a young family on minimum wage, for example, saw energy bills increase by up to 11% in one year alone (2013) and childcare costs rise by 77% in a single decade.

Meanwhile young people experienced double the unemployment rate of other workers during the recession, and a much slower recovery in its aftermath.

Beyond the ups and downs of the wider economic climate, however, political decisions have also driven hardship amongst struggling families.

The families we work with tell us they’ve been hit by a proliferation of recent changes to the benefits system. Partially aimed at cutting the UK welfare bill, these changes include tougher benefits ‘sanctions’ (suspension of payments), housing benefit cuts, and a below-inflation ‘freeze’ on income-related benefits

The human impact has often been unintentionally cruel. One mother, who missed a Jobcentre appointment because she was attending a meeting about her child at school, told us she was sanctioned for six weeks. Forced to survive on child benefit, the family turned to a suspected loan shark – turning a £300 loan into a £700 debt.

Worryingly, in their manifesto the Conservatives have committed to cutting £12bn of the welfare bill. It’s unclear exactly where the money will come from, but they have already pledged to restrict housing & out-of-work benefits for young people.

There are some crucial steps the new Government can take to improve the poorest children’s life chances, but they must heed lessons from the previous administration.

Firstly, they should guarantee that welfare cuts will not fall on the most vulnerable. They can start by following official recommendations and undertake a complete review of the financially punishing sanctions system.

Another major factor driving hardship is that, whilst these families’ benefits have been substantially cut, no real alternatives have materialised to help them escape the poverty trap.

In theory the new ‘Universal Credit’ welfare scheme, for example, goes a long way to helping families ‘work their way out of poverty’ as it irons out an anomaly in the current system by allowing claimants to work and claim benefits at the same time. It helps families more with childcare costs – a – major reason many find it difficult to work.

Yet the reality is that due to delays in introducing it ‘on the ground’, most families still aren’t on the scheme. At the same time, the Government has been stealthily cutting the benefit, by freezing it under the rate of inflation.

We would like to see the new Government continue introducing this scheme, but guarantee it will make no further cuts or freezes to working benefits so that when it’s finally rolled out to families it genuinely helps make work pay.

Finally, the Government must take steps to make sure that every child has the same life chances. Starting from the cradle onwards, they can commit in England* to protecting Children’s Centre funding, to increasing support for disadvantaged 3 and 4 year-olds, and assisting poor pupils through schemes like the Pupil Premium and Free School Meals. Marginalised school-leavers too need intensive personalised support and training to help them succeed in the work place.

Of course, other areas besides poverty need urgent ongoing attention. Sexual exploitation poses a huge threat to the wellbeing of UK children; recent revelations of the scale and nature of this vile form of abuse in Rotherham , Oxford and elsewhere highlights the need for Government action to ensure that in England* children are educated about healthy relationships. This has not been committed to in their manifesto either.

The new Government needs to wake up to the on-going issues that affect children around the UK, including poverty, taking action with proposals that protect and not punish the poorest. It is imperative that the UK looks after families who fall into crisis, by maintaining a benefits system that will nurture the children most in need of it.