By Abhay Venkitaraman
Cramped homes. Empty stomachs. Freezing winters.
This is a lived reality for the millions of people across the United Kingdom that suffer the indignity of child poverty. Recent statistics suggest that nearly one-third of children, over four million people, are afflicted by it – a figure that has almost certainly ballooned due to the cost of living crisis. Child poverty need not exist in a society as affluent as ours. Yet a long, winding trail of successive policy failures and callousness on the part of our political class has meant that the problem has grown ever worse. In my view, it is imperative that we as a society do everything in our power to relegate it to the trash heap where it belongs. Under the last Labour government, 900,000 children were brought out of poverty – the legacy of substantially increased investment in benefits and tax credits. New Labour’s record was hardly spotless, with cuts to lone-parent benefit being introduced during Tony Blair’s first term and the frequent invocation of harsh, stigmatising rhetoric against benefits claimants. Nonetheless, it is undeniable that on the whole Labour made significant progress in ameliorating living standards for countless children across the country.
Combined with exorbitant housing, childcare, and energy costs, the Tories have all but ensured that this plague on our society grows ever worse.
The same cannot be said for the Conservatives, who have pursued deeply ideological attempts to bleed the welfare state to death by a thousand cuts. In the context of child poverty, this has entailed the imposition of the odious two-child limit, which only allows households to claim Universal Credit for their first two children, and the benefit cap, which limits the total amount of welfare that claimants can receive. These have led to dramatic backsliding, with the number of children in poverty rising by 600,000 between 2011 and 2019. Combined with exorbitant housing, childcare, and energy costs, the Tories have all but ensured that this plague on our society grows ever worse. To put things in perspective, it’s worth highlighting the sheer impact that child poverty has on those that are afflicted by it. Children in poverty have been shown to have dramatically worse physical and mental health outcomes than their peers, for example being 70% more likely to develop asthma. Educational outcomes for impoverished children are considerably diminished, setting people from deprived backgrounds up for futures bereft of opportunities to climb up the social ladder. It also entails social exclusion. The National Children’s Bureau has noted that impoverished children are more likely to experience bullying and have difficulties with making friends. Moreover, cost barriers frequently shut them out of extracurricular activities, depriving them of crucial opportunities for personal development and self-realisation. What’s especially cruel about child poverty – though –is that its effects are often lifelong. Frequently facing diminished employment prospects and elevated risk of job instability, impoverished children have been found to have reduced earnings potential after reaching adulthood; one study finds that every additional year of child poverty experienced by someone between birth and the age of 21 reduces disposable incomes by 2.1%, with this figure more than tripling to 5.9% in cases where people experience poverty in their early teens. Furthermore, the poor physical and mental health that impoverished kids experience often scars them for life. Benard Dreyer – former president of the American Academy of Paediatrics – suggests that the chronically high stress levels that children in poverty face can cause permanent changes to brain structure and function, causing loss of mood control, increased anxiety, and making learning a vastly more taxing endeavour.
This is not just a policy failure – it is a moral outrage.
The evidence is clear: like killing a seedling before it can sprout into a fully-fledged plant, child poverty cripples the life chances of those that endure it, meaning that by tolerating it we squander countless amounts of talent and aspiration. This is not just a policy failure – it is a moral outrage. And to make matters worse it costs society at large to the tune of £25 billion a year. So, what can we do about it? For one, any incoming Labour government must scrap the two-child limit and benefit cap. Families with large numbers of children have suffered disproportionately due to these policies, and removing them could reduce child poverty substantially. The Child Poverty Action Group – an organisation committed to alleviating child poverty – estimates that removing the two-child limit could in itself lift 250,000 children out of poverty. Uprating child benefit should also be a crucial aspect of any anti-poverty strategy. In real terms, child benefit is less generous than it was two decades ago, even as the cost of essentials like housing and childcare have outpaced inflation.
With the right policies, we can free millions of children from the shackles of destitution and create a society where every single child has the opportunity to live a flourishing life from the get-go.
Finally, it is imperative that we tackle the root causes of high housing and childcare costs. Chronic housing shortages that drive up prices could be addressed through a combination of planning reform and increased social housebuilding, whilst a universal childcare guarantee could improve the affordability of childcare. Not only would these reforms alleviate the burden on working families, but they would also go a long way towards improving the United Kingdom’s economic performance. Ultimately, it must be said that the indignity of child poverty continues to haunt households across this country and that it results in a raft of negative effects that in many instances dog victims for life. That being said, this is hardly an inevitability. With the right policies, we can free millions of children from the shackles of destitution and create a society where every single child has the opportunity to live a flourishing life from the get-go.
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