The horizon currently looks pretty bleak for children and young people in the UK. The weekend brought news that 3,500 Sure Start children's centres face the risk of closure, and Wednesday's jobs figures saw youth unemployment hit the million mark.
In 1999, Labour pledged to end child poverty, and to turn the lives of children around. Today, under the current coalition government, that promise seems a long way off.
In a report published today, Decent childhoods: Reframing the Fight to End Child Poverty, we examine what happened to the UK child poverty agenda.
In the report, we warn against defeatism: 600,000 fewer children live in relative poverty today than in 1999 - against a background in which child poverty rose in most other European countries.
These gains are impressive. But they feel fragile when set against the current climate, and the Institute for Fiscal Studies have warned that this progress is beginning to reverse. The deep changes in the way we work, in our education system, and in the way that we treat children that were needed, were only partially realised.
Moreover, the agenda failed to build the public constituency for change that might have provided a bulwark against cuts in support for children. The government's lofty aspirations about ending child poverty seemed to fall on deaf ears.
We argue that at least part of the problem is the way that the debate has been framed. Tackling child poverty too often sounds like dealing with somebody else's problem. Yet low incomes and job insecurity are a majority concern; a recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation study demonstrates that while chronic poverty (defined in terms of years with household income below 60% median) only affects 10% of the poor population, and 3% of the population as a whole, poverty at some point affected 30% of the population.
How can we translate these facts into an agenda for change?
We think that the concept of decent childhoods might present a positive vision that more could identify with. A decent childhood for us means that all children have financial security, all have opportunities, and that all are valued. It means thinking about youth unemployment, thinking about the opportunities given by childcare and early education, and thinking about the type of culture that children grow up in, and recognising that these issues are part of the same agenda.
It means seeing that the problems faced by most people living in poverty are the extreme end of a larger set of issues; issues about the way that the labour market fails to deliver secure incomes or a working pattern that fits with family life, about the fact that the education system exacerbates rather than closes social gaps, and about the way that we consistently treat people on low incomes with disrespect.
Both coalition partners signed up to the 2010 Child Poverty Act, which put the target to end child poverty by 2020 on a statutory footing.
Current approaches would be unlikely to scratch the surface of this problem in the best of times, and these are not the best of times. But the current glut of bad news for children shouldn't force us to abandon these goals. Rather it should provide a spur to think again about what it would really take to deliver decent childhoods for all, and how we might build the support to do this.
Decent childhoods: Reframing the fight to end child poverty is published at http://www.decentchildhoods.org.uk/
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