30/05/2013 13:21 BST | Updated 30/07/2013 06:12 BST

Something Is Badly Broken When Children Don't Know What Work Is

'What do you want to be when you grow up?' It's a question most of us have been asked more than once. Sadly people still ask me now. Some of us dreamt of playing sport, touring space or flying aircraft. Others aspire to practice law, become a nurse or manage accounts. Some very strange people even say they want to go into politics.

Whatever our childhood hopes, we could probably think of at least something positive to say when someone asked us the question. And we certainly knew what the question meant.

But that's not the case for some children out there. Consider this: a child is asked what she wants to be when she's older and she cannot answer. Not because she has a plethora of favoured options and can't make up her mind, but because she has no concept of what work is or that she can achieve something. And consider another example. A different child is asked the same question and says he wants to be 'the boss of a gang', or simply 'famous'. These are our children growing up in homes without work, and neighbourhoods where the majority of households lack employment.

If that hasn't shocked you, re-read it. If it still hasn't shocked you, perhaps that's a reflection of how deeply we have sunk. Charities on this front line of disadvantage reveal a different kind of poverty. Not in this case financial poverty, which has resulted in governments chasing arbitrary income lines with narrow welfare hand-outs, but poverty of aspiration.

If some individuals had their way, the debate about poverty would overlook Britain's entrenched worklessness. Bizarrely, a number of commentators assume that by turning the spotlight onto our ghettos of dependency we demonise the poor. Poverty is all about those who work - trapped by low wages and underemployment - they say.

And whilst a majority of people below the 'poverty line' are working at least a little, which should surprise no-one because work is a journey of progress rather than a magic wand, it is nonsense to pretend these workless wastelands of human potential are insignificant. Undoubtedly urgent help is required for those in work and earning too little - especially because work should pay and our ballooning tax credit and housing benefit bills are unsustainable. But the working poor cannot remain the only poverty debate in town.

Children in couple households where two adults are in full-time employment have only a one per cent chance of being in relative income poverty - but this rises to 64 per cent for children in homes where neither adult works. Work is clearly the only genuine route out of poverty.

Worklessness is a national emergency. Some 6.8 million people, including nearly two million children, live in households where nobody works. If that's not bad enough, the number of households where no one has ever worked almost doubled under Labour.

Delving deeper, the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) has found clusters of tragic dependency in many of our towns and cities. In our examination of economic dependency, Singed On, Written Off (published last week), we highlight one neighbourhood in Wales where 67 per cent of working age people are on out-of-work benefits. In Liverpool, there are nearly 70 areas where at least a third of people are dependent on these benefits.

If you want to see the grim reality of this wasted potential, visit communities where generations of families are out of work. For Signed On, Written Off, we surveyed almost 50 grassroots charities - 96 per cent of them said they know of families where two or three generations have no one in work.

These neighbourhoods have become hoarse after years of trying to be heard. Even during the good times, characterised by record economic growth, millions of people were abandoned on the scrapheap. In almost a third of local authority areas, the number of people locked in dependency was the same or even higher in 2006 than in 1999.

A lethal cocktail of problems has fostered this dependency. Our welfare system has acted like a noose around the neck of prosperity, compounded by a lack of jobs in some regions and a raging youth unemployment fire that, frankly, no one has even come close to putting out. And social housing has for too long locked people into deprived areas and hindered social mobility.

Yet the saddest consequence of such out-of-work dependency is felt by children like those featured earlier. Nothing saps hope, ambition and aspiration in childhood like knowing that between a third and a half of your school mates will be out of work for long periods of time in the future. Nothing drains purpose from young lives as fast as when they see their families struggling for employment scraps, increasingly disillusioned by the reality of adulthood.

Writing these communities off as successive governments have done is nothing more than an endowment for youth unemployment and adult despair. Unless we cast a new vision for these economic and social deserts, we will continue to pay the price and too many of the next generation will go to waste.