news analysis of child poverty figures

Although the number of children living in poverty has
fallen since 1997, anti-poverty campaigners warn that more must be
done to meet targets.
Anabel Unity Sale

The government has failed meet its pledge to remove one million
children from poverty during its first term.

Figures published last week by the department for work and
pensions reveal that 500,000 fewer children are now officially poor
than in 1997. While this is undeniably progress, anti-poverty
campaigners were expecting more.

The Households Below Average Income report shows that in 2000-1
there were 3.9 million children living in households in England,
Scotland and Wales with incomes below 60 per cent of the median
average, after housing costs. This compares with 4.4 million
children in 1996-7, when Labour took office.

These statistics make startling reading given the government’s
public commitment to halve child poverty by 2010 and eradicate it
by 2020.

Despite the significant shortfall in the figures, the department
for work and pensions remains adamant that the government’s
attempts to reduce child poverty are proving successful.

A spokesperson for the DWP points out that, as well as removing
500,000 children from relative poverty, the government has
prevented a further 700,000 children from entering it. He says the
government is a third of the way towards reducing by a quarter the
number of children living in relative poverty by 2004-5, based on a
1998-9 baseline.

Despite of the government’s good intentions and the headway
being made, the numbers of children living in relative poverty
remain high.

Mike Lewis, policy director of Children in Wales, an umbrella
organisation for children’s work, believes this is because the
government has failed to realise how significant the problem of
child poverty is and how it should be tackled.

“It is about changing cultures in communities where unemployment
is high,” he says. “There is more to changing people’s attitudes
than giving them a job seeker’s interview.”

Stephen Burke, director of the Daycare Trust, says the scale of
the task facing the government is substantial and warns that it
will be some time before the impact of its measures to tackle child
poverty is felt. He disagrees with the areas targeted through
initiatives like Sure Start and Neighbourhood Nurseries. “Most poor
children do not live in areas where these initiatives are
operating,” he claims.

Providing local affordable child care for working parents is
vital if the government was to meet its pledge, he says. “Parents
working is the best way to reduce child poverty.”

Burke also warns that the failure to reduce child poverty
figures as quickly as expected could derail the wider social
inclusion agenda.

“Poverty is a major cause of social exclusion and until the
government has tackled that it is unlikely to be able to tackle the
many other symptoms of social exclusion,” he says.

Lewis agrees that addressing child poverty is the cornerstone of
the social inclusion agenda. According to him, amending the way the
social fund operates would be one way to improve the situation for
poor children. The limited number of social fund grants available
fails to help poor families, he argues. “Need should not be based
on ring-fenced income. The government must look at other ways of
prioritising need.”

Rosie Edwards, Children’s Society anti-poverty programme
manager, urges the government to “revisit its policies and
investigate what else it has to do” before people start to believe
that reducing child poverty is too difficult to achieve because the
figures remain so high.

Neera Sharma, policy adviser for Barnardo’s, says the government
must also widen its net. She says current policies focus on lifting
the least poor children out of poverty. “It leaves behind disabled
children, travellers’ children and those from ethnic minorities.
There need to be targeted sums for those families that suffer
chronic and persistent poverty.”

For Sharma, a more fundamental shift is required in the
government’s thinking. “The government is not trying to win the
hearts and minds of middle England on child poverty. And that is
what we want to see.”

‘Households Below Average Income – 1994/5 to 2000/01’ from

go to ‘online documents’ and the report is listed under ‘other

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