There is no poverty in the UK I hear you cry. Really? Let’s start by looking at what we mean by poverty and the statistics. There is currently no formal UK-wide measure of poverty, but experts such as the Social Metrics Commission set the threshold as 55% of the median total available resources – creating a poverty line relative to what the median family has available to spend.
The UK is the 5th richest economy in the world yet astonishingly 14.5 million people are living in poverty. Of these, 4.5 million are children. A record 2.9 million children from working families in the UK are living in poverty after housing costs have been paid. Families with two parents working full time, at the national minimum wage, are still 11% short of the income needed to raise a child. In total, 70% of all poor children were living in working families with at least one parent in work.
High cost of housing is pushing many people over the poverty line. Recently the Rugg Review of the private rented sector found that 86% of low-income households in England and 97% of low-income households in Greater London renting privately experience at least one of 3 harms; poverty, overcrowding, and hazardous homes. According to calculations by the National Housing Federation (NHF), nearly a third more children – or 193,000 – are now living in such meagre circumstances because of spiraling rents and mortgage costs, compared with 2010.The NHF CEO, Kate Henderson said: “Year after year hundreds of thousands more hard-working families are falling into poverty – forced to choose between feeding and clothing their children, or providing a roof over their heads.”
In November 2018, Professor Philip Alston, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty 3 “punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous” austerity policies. A combination of soaring housing and living costs, pressurised public services and diminished state support are worsening the capital’s child poverty crisis.
But why does it matter?
Many families living in poverty care for their children brilliantly especially those who can rely on the help and support of wider networks of people. But struggling to make ends meet puts pressure on the ability of some parents to nurture their children. From early pregnancy, children born into poverty show clear-cut health differences at each stage of the life cycle. They are more likely to suffer ill-health like asthma. If you grow up undernourished, you may ironically become obese with the costly long-term illnesses such as diabetes.
Children from low-income families are less likely to do well in school. And it starts early –usually in the form of a limited vocabulary, language, oracy and reading skills and less assured social skills which challenges their educational success from the earliest age.
One way to lift families out of poverty is to give them more money by helping them to work. The Universal Credit was designed to make this easier but it has been a disaster, exacerbating deprivation through a roll out best summed up by the emotive film I Am Daniel Blake.
To work, parents need access to affordable child care. And to mitigate the worst impact of poverty on children’s life chances, that child care has to be of the highest possible quality. However, staff need to be sensitive to the challenges faced by children living in poverty. After all, as Mohammed Yunus points out, poverty is not created by poor people but by the systems we have built, the institutions we have designed and the concepts we have formulated.
In 2015, research conducted by Dr Donald Simpson and Dr Eunice Lumsden thought poverty was a problem of troubled parenting. Few attributed it to factors such as low pay and unemployment. The researchers analysed 179 questionnaires and 30 interviews across four countries and respondents held relatively negative views about children in poverty relative to their better off peers. This negative attitude affected their views of poor children’s cognitive ability, motor skills, emotional development, health, respectfulness and ability to stay on task. There was also evidence that they did not adjust how they taught or made any amendments for those children, yet a sizeable minority of children enter settings with needs related to their disadvantage. They sought support from the depleted Local Authority support teams only when a child had an identified developmental delay.
The views about their parents were equally negative particularly about issues such as attendance at meetings, volunteering at the setting, responses to communication and engagement in their children’s learning. So, the scores on the doors could be five but such unconscious and conscious attitudes may be undermining and fatalistic for those children attending and deepen the disadvantage for those very children who can least afford it.
Children from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds have parents who love them, but poverty hinders some of their ability to be positive parents. We need to be sensitive to this in terms of our relationships with those parents, but we also need to fight for the structural changes needed to ensure those children are simply not left behind. For example, why are children from disadvantaged households not able to access 15-hour childcare offer – take up is 72% (61% in London) compared with 3- and 4-year olds (92%). The Government said that tackling poverty is its priority, I don’t see that, so we need to shout out about the impact of poverty on children because failing will affect us all.
Click here to watch my TEDxExeter talk on Child Poverty.