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Expert Comment: General election results could lead to an increase in child poverty

Toys Wednesday 13 May 2015

Dr Dave Merryweather, Lecturer in Childhood and Youth in the Department of Social Work, Care and Justice looks at how the new Government's policies could impact on child poverty in the UK.

In 2013 the ESRC funded research group, Poverty and Social Exclusion (PSE), published a report into the extent of poverty and deprivation across the UK. In a damning verdict on the Coalition Government’s policies, the report pointed to an enormous rise in child poverty and deprivation with some 4 million children and adults not being properly fed, 2.5 million children living in damp accommodation and about 1.5 million children living in households that could not afford to heat their home. With ‘austerity’ had come a shocking rise in food-banks, pay-day loans, cuts in benefits and a proliferation of zero-hour contracts. That such an economic context should lead to a huge increase in child poverty and deprivation really was of little surprise.

And yet, in last week’s General Election a Conservative Government was elected which has promised, in David Cameron’s words, to ‘Get the job done!’ Already talk is of the need to cut a further £12bn from public spending and we can only speculate as to exactly where the axe will fall. However, mention has already been made of limiting Child Benefits to two children, reforming Tax Credits, abolishing statutory maternity pay, barring under 21 year olds from claiming Housing Benefit, extending pre-paid benefits cards to many benefits’ claimants and cutting in-work benefits. These are policies that have the potential to augment, not alleviate, child poverty if caution is not exercised.

It is often claimed that in a modern country such as the UK ‘real’ poverty does not exist: after all children have mobile phones, computers in their bedrooms and flat-screen televisions so how can they be poor? However, leaving aside the fact that such commodities may have been purchased with credit or in ‘better times’, or that such purchases may make good financial sense when many forms of children’s leisure are simply unaffordable, it is important to remind ourselves what poverty is and what it does to people.

Poverty means being unable to share the lifestyle and access the resources and amenities that society as a whole regards as acceptable. Poverty is in this sense very much about a lack of material goods. But it also impacts upon quality of life, education, health and wellbeing (including mental health), future career prospects, hope and aspiration (for communities as well as individuals). Indeed, in a society in which the poor are routinely stigmatised poverty infects the soul, leaving a devastating scar on those who suffer at its hands.   

In 1999 the then Labour Government made a pledge to eliminate child poverty by 2020. This pledge now seems like a distant dream. The incoming government should think long and hard about its policies and the impact these may have on the lives of millions of children. In particular, ending child poverty should be reinstated as a national priority. Policies should be pursued that improve real incomes and living standards, remove the reliance on food-banks and restore the real value of child benefits. Strategies should be developed within the education system that work to alleviate the effects of poverty and eliminate, not reproduce, social disadvantage, and improvements should be made to childcare provision.

David Cameron was pledged to offer a ‘compassionate Conservatism’. How successful he is in delivering this will be determined by just how much is done to tackle child poverty and improve children’s lives over the next five years. It is difficult to see how this will be achieved if further cuts are made to the welfare budget. 

0152 Mr David Merryweather

Dr David Merryweather, Lecturer in Childhood and Youth

Department of Social Work, Care and Justice

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