Eradicating child poverty is an ambitious but hugely important aspiration. Not only does it makes sense economically, as according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation the annual cost of our high levels of child poverty is around £25 billion, but it is a moral duty, as no decent society should allow children to go without, to the extent that it affects their future life chances.
The welcome, modest reduction in child poverty shown in the Government's annual Households Below Average Income (HBAI) statistics today must not overtake the discussion of the reality of the depth of poverty being experienced by a shocking 3.8 million children and their families in the UK.
Right now, Barnardo's 800 services across the country are witnessing the grim reality of life for families trapped in vicious cycles of debt, torn between impossible choices such as heating their homes or giving hot meals to their children. Day in, day out, our staff work with service users like Rachel, a single mum of three, who feels an overwhelming sense of panic when she considers how she is going to pay for rent and food for the rest of this year. "Small amounts of money make such a huge difference when you're struggling to get by," Rachel told our Young Families service in Wakefield, Yorkshire. "The only way we manage is when every single penny that comes in is carefully accounted for."
Money matters to families living below the poverty line and I'm not just talking about families where no one has a job. 60% of children living below the breadline live in households where at least one parent goes to work. Barnardo's calculations show that a two parent family with two children, where one parent works part time, could be living on as little as nine pounds per person per day, having received all the benefits due to them. That's nine pounds to cover everything: from gas to electricity bills, school uniforms to bus travel, and food, to name but a few.
Any debate around how child poverty is measured must have as its focus the life chances of those growing up in hardship right now. Of course, a considered strategy to tackle child poverty in the long term is vital, but families need more than strategies or rhetoric. They need real, tangible action, both to improve the income and the access to services that they have.
It was with that urgency in mind that earlier this year I signed a letter to the Prime Minister challenging the changes to Working Tax Credit that now require couples to work an extra eight hours a week in order to qualify for the £4,000 benefit. I, along with many other charity representatives, pleaded with David Cameron for this change to be postponed until universal credit comes into force in 2013, because it is this kind of action that will penalise the poorest, hard working families at a time when they are least equipped to handle it.
Damaging work incentives must be avoided at all costs if the government truly wants to make work pay and end child poverty. Eradicating child poverty is the vital step to enable social mobility - that is, giving all people the opportunity to reach their potential, regardless of their background or circumstances.
Achieving a level playing field means so much more than getting the brightest, poorest students into Oxbridge. First and foremost, it means getting the basics in place, like making sure parents are able to bring home an adequate wage in order that children are properly fed, clothed and housed. It means supporting the most disadvantaged pupils to stay the course throughout their education. And it means helping young people to develop the skills and gain the experience they will need to work their way up and out of grinding poverty.
At Barnardo's we never give up on a child. And I believe that with persistent and concerted action by employers, government and the voluntary sector, enabling social mobility and tackling child poverty can be more than rhetoric, and more than a distant dream. The scandal of child poverty is a blight on our nation, which we will not remove unless we commit to taking action that matters.
It is our duty to prevent further children from falling beneath the poverty line, and help those already growing up in deprivation climb towards a brighter tomorrow.