Government drive to eradicate child poverty stalls

There was a wave of optimism among children’s charities and practitioners when, in 1999, the government promised to eradicate child poverty by 2020. But with the government’s failure to meet an interim target to reduce it by a quarter by 2004-5, and a recognition that it is unlikely to halve it by 2010, these high hopes are been replaced with growing disappointment.

The latest figures – a rise of 100,000 children to 2.8m living in poverty before housing costs between 2004-5 and 2005-6, or 200,000 to 3.8m in poverty after housing costs over the same period – have reinforced the gloomy outlook. Yet there is a consensus among campaigners that the 2010 target is still within grasp if the government would only give its full political commitment – and £4bn – to the cause.

“For less than half the current cost of the London Olympics we could halve child poverty,” says Martin Narey (pictured left), chief executive of Barnardos and chair of the End Child Poverty Campaign, pointing out that this would represent just one fifth of 1% of total public expenditure. The Institute for Fiscal Studies says the government will miss the 2010 target by 800,000 children if it keeps tax and benefit levels constant, adding that it would have a 50-50 chance of meeting its goal if it invested instead the extra £4bn required.

However, chancellor Gordon Brown’s budget entailed a far more modest commitment, with the per child element of child tax credit set to rise by £150 a year from April 2008, and rises in child benefit of 65p extra a week for eldest children to £18.10. This will become £20 by 2010. For other children there will be an extra 40p per week, to £12.10.

The government estimates these measures could lift 200,000 children out of poverty, and employment minister Jim Murphy claims the government is still determined to meet its 2010 target. But Narey insists there are “no plans in evidence to show that can be done”.

“The deterioration in the figures was a shock to many of us,” Narey says. “What is much more troubling is that the government has not got any plans to get back on track.

“Government targets for tackling child poverty in 1999 excited everybody and I don’t think the government can do anything but accept that it is no longer the priority that it was, otherwise the money would have been there in the budget.”

Chris Pond, chief executive of One Parent Families, shares this disappointment over the figures but believes that the “downpayment” of between £1bn and £2bn made in the budget is “an important step forward”. However, he wants to see more in the forthcoming comprehensive spending review and says that, while the shutters are starting to come down on government opportunities for action, there is still scope to reach the target by adopting measures in November’s pre-budget report and even next year’s budget.

Following the 2007 budget, the Department for Work and Pensions published Working for Children, in effect a revised version of its anti-poverty strategy, which “refocuses” £150m of DWP resources on greater support for families.

Lisa Harker, a freelance policy adviser, welcomes the increased financial support for families through rises in child benefit and child tax credit and is pleased that the DWP has accepted many of the recommendations in her 2006 DWP-commissioned report, Delivering on Child Poverty: What Would it Take?

The DWP measures include a “new deal for families”, entitling them to access help previously only available to lone parents, including an assessment of child care needs more support for lone parents coupled with greater obligations on those with older children to seek work and an increase in the in-work credit scheme, which provides extra financial support for lone parents as they make the transition to work.

However, Harker points out that, despite the DWP recognising the importance of not just getting lone parents into work but giving them sufficient support to ensure they stay employed, there are “very few specific proposals, or money invested, to make that happen”. DWP proposals to help potential second earners into work, which could help many families out of poverty, are also inadequate, Harker adds. “There are one-year pilots in six cities, they are short term and will not be reaching that many families.”

The government might argue that it has not given up on its poverty targets altogether. But just heading in the right direction is not enough. As Harker puts it, “while the medicine is right, the dosage is too low”.

What is child poverty?
The government is in the process of finalising a material deprivation index as part of its new measurement of child poverty, which it will unveil in the comprehensive spending review later this year.

However, the Department for Work and Pensions’ list of “material deprivation questions” which form part of the existing UK poverty measure reveal a child would be considered poor if, among other things, they did not:

● Have a family holiday away from home for at least one week.
● Live in a home with enough bedrooms for every child aged 10 or over of a different sex to have their own room.
● Have access to leisure equipment such as a bicycle.
● Have sufficient funds to celebrate birthdays, Christmas or other religious festivals.
● Go swimming at least once a month.
● Have friends round for tea or a snack once a fortnight.
● Go on school trips.

Lisa Harker says a material deprivation index is a way of adding more colour to the picture of poverty and helps people understand what it is.

Dr Paul Dornan, head of policy and research at the Child Poverty Action Group, adds that having such an index “chimes with the public mood as it would demonstrate very strongly the circumstances of children and their living conditions”. But he cautions that it would be difficult to develop such a list as children and families have different experiences in different parts of the country.

‘I have to rely on my parents to pay my bills’
Julie Kemp has just got her gas bill. She owes £310 and has no way of finding that kind of money out of a weekly income from benefits of just £157 for her and her four children. She says her parents, who are stalwart supporters, will pay the bill.

Heating is a vital aspect of the Kemp household’s battle to survive as Julie must keep her joints warm as she suffers from rheumatism and her youngest daughter, seven-year-old Jessica, has had problems with a hip since she was six months old and is in constant pain.

Julie says: “Social services tell me that I should take Jessica swimming as it would help her, but I just can’t afford it. I don’t get any extra help financially because of her condition.” Fortunately Jessica will have the chance to go swimming as she moves up her school.

The major supermarkets in her hometown of Swaffham in Norfolk are off-limits for Julie because she reckons her weekly shop would cost more than £100 there. Instead, she spends between £40 and £50 at the discount store Netto instead. “If the kids need clothes then they come from a charity shop. Jessica needs inner soles otherwise she falls over and that means getting more expensive shoes,” she says.

Last year Julie, with Jessica and her other children, 17-year-old Lee, 15-year-old Gemma and Martin, who is nine, was able to forget her financial worries briefly as they had their first family holiday thanks to the generosity of the Family Welfare Association.

Julie Kemp, mother of four, Swaffham, Norfolk

This article appeared in the 17 May issue under the headline “Measure by measure”


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