THE BLOG

In a Time of Austerity, Do the UK's Children Have to Suffer?

31/10/2014 17:50 GMT | Updated 31/12/2014 10:59 GMT

In 2010, in the midst of the financial crisis, a legal commitment to eliminate child poverty by 2020 was made. Unlike most other developed countries, Britain took this momentous step with the aim of lifting the children of the United Kingdom out of poverty, and closing the widening inequality gap.

The goal had been set. And many government measures have been brought in by this government with the aim of achieving it; supporting working parents through the extension of free childcare places to the most vulnerable two-year-olds, and the availability of free school meals for all primary pupils help to support families on a monetary level to name two. These policies along with the government's focus on early intervention, high-quality early years provision, and the pledge to reform the welfare system, were commendable.

They were necessary. But now we know thanks to this UNICEF report that they were not enough.

The recession means that, whoever governs we are now in the grip of austerity politics and will be for some years to come. Because we faced that challenge our economy is now recovering. But this makes that other challenge, the task of lifting children out of poverty, much harder and much more difficult. If we had the political will to meet that economic challenge we must now show the will to meet the second, human one. What does it benefit our country if we have an economy which is strong but a society which leaves children in poverty and hopelessness? Unicef's latest "report card", offers a comparative analysis of the economic crisis on children in rich countries and it does not make comfortable reading for Britain and its politicians.

Whilst comparable governments such as Australia, Canada, and Germany have all managed to reduce child poverty during the financial crisis, the number of children in the UK living in poverty increased by 1.6 percentage points between 2008 and 2012. This confirms other data which ought to act as a wake up call to all of us that economic success is not enough if it means that progress towards the elimination of child poverty is allowed to stagnate. We know that moving closer towards ending child poverty has proved challenging for all governments but never has there been a more pressing time to reaffirm the promise we made to children and put new energies into action to protect children from poverty and the effects of inequality.

We must now work together to ensure that children are allocated a fair share when it comes to apportioning limited resources. We should now - and urgently - review the impact of our economic policies on children to determine the action we need to take to provide the best way to protect children from the burdens of austerity. At present, as the UNICEF report shows, children world-wide seem to be suffering most from the policies of austerity; we must ensure that they suffer least. Is it now beyond our wit to do what is possible to mitigate the negative impact of the policies which were necessary during recession so as to meet our responsibilities to give every child the right to an adequate standard of living.

We need to tackle the structural causes of poverty, not just the symptoms. The centre-piece of this should be policies which alter the balance of opportunity in favour of children from poorer families - an example of this which could be built on is the pupil premium. Other examples could be prioritising investment in schools in poorer areas, increasing the incomes of poor families with children through financial support, benefit reform, and promoting the living wage.

The UNICEF report should be a wake up call for us all. The economic recovery, however commendable, will remain incomplete for as long as Britain lags behind in its moral duty to ensure that or children are not left behind in poverty.