Although almost two decades have passed, for some of us, the millennium does not seem that long ago. Amongst fears of a cyber bug and discussions about a dome, the turn of the century heralded hope for a brighter and more promising future. The international Millennium Development Goals (MDG) set out eight aims, and since then, extreme poverty has been reduced by half on a global scale; a target that was reached five years before the 2015 deadline. Although education for all and universal gender equality is yet to be achieved, there have been significant improvements, alongside improved sanitation and global maternal health. As part of this commitment to change, in 2001, Tony Blair pledged to end child poverty in this country. All of the main political parties promised to commit to eradicating it by 2020, and yet this target has been disregarded and it is not likely to be met.
Child Poverty Act in 2010
The policy and legislative framework put into place by the New Labour government had cut poverty by around 1 million by the general election in 2010. However, periods of financial instability and the economic downturn brought a Tory-Lib Dem Coalition and a period of austerity. Yet further commitments were made by the Child Poverty Act in 2010, in which all parties aimed to reduce child poverty to one in ten children, or 1.3 million. Estimates by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission (SMCPC) say that around 1 in 5 kids will live in relative or absolute poverty in 2020, at an approximate cost of £29 billion per year to the state. The Institute for Fiscal Studies proposed that across the country, there will be up to 5.1 million children living in poverty by 2022, at a 42% increase since 2010 which is ultimately a reversal of the previous reductions.
Growth in working poverty
As the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest in our country begins to widen amongst an atmosphere of political divide and disengagement, there is a need for change. Throughout history, there has been a perception that those living in poverty are unemployed, with policies often aiming to get people back to work. However, with zero-hour contracts, low minimum wages, and the cost of living consistently rising, we have seen a growth in working poverty. Evidence shows that six out of every ten children living in poverty are part of a low income working family. Child Tax Working Credits and other such personal allowances regarding taxation have meant that short-term relief results only in long term difficulties, with cuts to the benefits system and a failure to increase funds despite inflation. Policies continue to be propped up by stereotypical perceptions of what it is to be poor and yet compared to a decade ago, the experience of living in poverty is now much harsher.
In 2013, the government thought that universal credit would save the day, estimating that it would take 300, 000 children, out of poverty ‘at least’. In truth, the far-reaching effects of the benefit redesign are coming to light more and more each day, with an increasing number of people relying on food banks and charity to feed their families. Statistics have indicated that growing up in poverty is associated with poorer health and wellbeing, a lower life expectancy, and an increased risk of living in poverty as an adult. In fact, the Office of National Statistics reported that at just 22 months, a child’s pre-school development can be used to provide an estimation of their lives at 26.
Equipping young minds with the skills they need to succeed.
Education and equipping young minds with the skills they need to succeed is thought to be the effective way of promoting social mobility and ending the cycle of disadvantage. However, children who are eligible for free school meals underperform at each stage. Children from low-income households are less likely to succeed at primary, are significantly less likely to achieve 5 A*-C GCSEs and are less likely to go onto higher education. However, despite Free School Meals often being used as an indicator of low income, half a million of the children who are classed as living below the poverty line are not actually entitled to receive this support. Moreover, one out of ten are living in a household that is unable to afford to heat their home effectively and a report by UNICEF stated that one in five children in the UK suffer from food insecurity.
Since 2000 and the heady dreams of an idealistic equal future, several social policies have aimed to address the divisive and increasing effects of inequality in the UK. However, there have been significant barriers to their effective implementation. Revising measures and changing definitions might make the statistics look better, but it will not address the lived experience and a failure to prioritise child poverty continues to widen the gap. Recently, experts have proposed that there is now no singular policy measure that could be put into place that would make the eradication of child poverty a possibility. Instead, there is a distinct need to recognise the complex and multi-dimensional nature of it and combat it with measures that are equally multi-faceted.
Was the government pledge ever truly realistic?
Perhaps. It was always going to be difficult, and it could be said that those in power have been attempting to alleviate poverty for years, with little success. A focus on the cycle of poverty, the ridiculous idea that poverty is a choice, and the misguided meritocratic dream proposing that our position in life is only dependent on our skills and merits have yet to prove fruitful. The same rehashed policies focusing on the individual have yet to be successful. Perhaps it is time for the State to recognise that expenditure on policies that aim to improve children’s lives is ultimately an investment in the future of our country.