Today marks the start of a 12 week government consultation looking at how child poverty is measured and defined in the UK. The question at the heart of the consultation is likely to be whether or not money truly makes a difference to the most deprived families.
Barnardo's believes that the scandal of child poverty in this country will only be tackled when action is taken to improve both the income and the access to services that the poorest families have. We lobby and campaign in order to represent the voices of the families and children we work with - to make the government aware of the need for change when it comes to helping families with childcare costs and early years education.
We know that money matters to the poorest families - especially when rising living costs, stagnating wages, a weak labour market and spending cuts are placing more pressure on them than ever before. Many families in poverty in the UK live on just £12 per person per day after housing costs. That £12 has to stretch to cover everything: food, electricity, water, gas, bus fares.
We also know the value of services, which is why we work in partnership with education, health and therapeutic services, the police, youth offending teams and local authorities. We provide a range of support services including more than 80 Sure Start children's centres that reach the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children, provide drop in sessions for parents, and home visit support to families.
The voluntary and statutory sector must continue to work together to establish intensive multi-agency support for the most deprived and excluded families, to help them deal with issues early on. But when it comes to the life chances of the 3.6 million children in the UK who live below the breadline, it is both money and services that will make a difference.
Services will do what they can but there is no quick fix, no magic spell to stop children getting ill when they live in families who are priced out of heating their homes. The reality is unrelenting: the effects of growing up in poverty can not only destroy long term health but crush childhood aspiration, result in low educational outcomes and remove any opportunity a child may have had to successfully enter the world of work.
Money is the ability for a family to afford expenses like repairing a fridge, so that their children can eat fresh food. It is what stops families from resorting to high-cost credit lenders and being plunged into a downward spiral of debt when it comes to one-off costs like replacing worn school shoes, buying a new school uniform or sending their children on a school trip. Three-year-olds in households with incomes below £10,000 per annum are 2.5 times more likely to suffer chronic illness than children in households with incomes above £52,000.
So it is with the direct correlation of money to life chances in mind that Barnardo's is convinced of the importance of defining and measuring child poverty by income. Of course, child poverty income targets should sit alongside the development of other key policy areas such as early years and childcare provision, health and family support and health and housing advice. It would be wrong if one were at the expense of the other and it is of the utmost importance that the government looks to tackle child poverty on all fronts, in a holistic and realistic way. The Child Poverty Act 2010 already sets out a robust framework for doing this: with four UK wide income measures to be achieved by 2020 as well as progress on a range of other indicators such as parental employment and skills.
Barnardo's is concerned that the government is seeking to change the definition of poverty and the way it is measured because it knows how far off it is from meeting the 2020 target to end child poverty. Changing the way that child poverty is defined is not an acceptable scapegoat for facing the facts: the Institute for Fiscal Studies projections show that by 2020 a further 1 million children will be pushed into poverty unless action is taken now.
If this consultation is an attempt to distract from the lack of tangible measures put in place to meet the existing target of ending child poverty by 2020, it is simply smoke and mirrors. Moving the goal posts will do absolutely nothing to help those who are languishing in poverty right now, nor will it help future generations.
Too much time has gone by with too much rhetoric and too little action. Even while this consultation is ongoing, the government has a chance to take actions that can begin to make a difference. They can start tackling debt by providing all families with clear access to a bank account and low interest loans ahead of the introduction of universal credit. They can ensure benefit take-up by educating families on what they are entitled to and how to claim it. They can make addressing fuel poverty a priority, so that families are no longer priced out of heating their homes.
Barnardo's urges the government to remain committed to income as a central tenant of the way child poverty is measured in the UK. If we are to give our nation's children any chance of climbing their way up and out of poverty we need to start with honesty about where we are right now and what the options are for moving forward. We need a clear strategy against which we can measure results when it comes to tackling child poverty. It is about time we cut the rhetoric and focus in on the actions and efforts required to provide equal opportunities for the next generation.