Six years on from the start of the global financial and economic crisis, the world still finds itself tightly tethered to austerity. But how are the poorest children faring in the UK, Europe and other well-off countries? What is the impact of austerity on the Children of the Recession?
Governments across the EU and OECD, including the UK made a dramatic shift from the stimulus policies in the immediate aftermath of the financial crisis to stringent cuts in public spending in a bid to control the public finances. But what we can see from the latest in UNICEF's Report Card series is that different policy choices have helped protect the most vulnerable children in some countries through the struggles of recession and austerity while levels of child poverty have worsened in others. The UK's poorest children have not fared well. Many in the next generation are now growing up in conditions of severe material deprivation, in families struggling to make ends meet, stay warm, eat properly and pay the bills on low incomes.
The UK is exceptional in having a commitment to eliminating child poverty by 2020 which is enshrined in the law of the land, but the Report Card data show us that child poverty in the UK increased, based on the 2008 poverty line, by 1.6 percentage points between 2008 and 2012. This is not an inevitable consequence of the recession. The league tables demonstrate that 18 other recession-affected rich countries have managed to reduce child poverty, on the same definition, and 24 countries have performed better than the UK. Poland has managed to cut the proportion of children living in poverty by nearly 8% during the same period, and even hard-hit Portugal has seen a smaller increase than the UK. Germany, Australia, Canada, Belgium and Slovakia and even Romania and Bulgaria have done better than the UK in the league table ranking countries by the change in child poverty rates during the 2008-12 years of recession and austerity. It's data like these which highlight the desperate need for a comprehensive, credible plan that will actually turn the law on the elimination of child poverty into a reality for the one in four children currently living in poverty here in the UK, and stand future generations in good stead to prosper and grow - and contribute to our economy and society.
Since 2010, the UK has implemented a series of changes to the tax and benefits system that have, in their cumulative effect, reduced the real value and coverage of child benefits and tax credits for the poorest families with children, putting additional pressure on those already vulnerable to the impact of the recession. And we know that more austerity is yet to come. The impact of the 2013 changes, including a cap on the total benefits a household can receive, are not yet reflected in the tables and could drive even more children into poverty unless compensated by other measures. According to the report, we have already lost six years of potential progress in reducing child poverty; we now have an urgent responsibility to prioritise the rights and needs of children, turn the tide of child poverty and deprivation, and ensure that the next phase of our economic development includes a specific intention and plan not only to stop any further increase in the number of children living in poverty, but to reverse the losses that have occurred since 2008.
This report is not just an exercise in complicated data analysis - it demonstrates real evidence of suffering for children. As well as poverty figures, the report looks at "severe material deprivation" - an assessment of how far children are unable to access the basics of a decent life. On this measure the number suffering such deprivation in the UK has increased dramatically with around 1.5million children living in families that are struggling with such basics as paying their rent and utility bills, feeding their children a decent meal and keeping warm. Only six countries out of 41, including Greece, Cyprus and Latvia, have seen a worse deterioration in rates of severe material deprivation, and countries like Poland, Germany, Portugal and Romania have seen rates improve.
Surely no-one wants our most vulnerable children to suffer, even in harsh economic times. And they don't need to. Different choices are possible. We know because many other countries have done better. It is possible to reduce child poverty and deprivation even as we take steps to recover from the great recession. Countries including Chile, Finland, Norway, Poland and Slovakia all reduced child poverty levels by three per cent or more. The report includes a table of policy measures taken by the countries in the study. Those that have sustained, or in some cases increased, support for children and families in greatest need have shown that it is possible to weather the storm and shelter children from the most devastating effects of austerity, rather than allowing them to bear the brunt of it.
For the UK the report recognises as positive the introduction of 15 hours a week of free childcare for all children up to the age of two. But the net effect of the policies adopted in the UK and many other countries has been to drive more children into poverty and deprivation. In the UK, the majority of poor children live in families where someone is working, but too many are not earning a living wage sufficient to meet the needs of their families, and the mix of minimum wage and in-work benefits is not enough to keep them out of poverty. We have to make a more comprehensive effort to leave no child behind.
We have to act now before the next round of austerity comes into effect. Let's revitalise and re-energise the cross party commitment to end child poverty by 2020. An urgent and comprehensive review is needed of the impact of any economic and welfare policy changes and options to clearly identify the impact of each measure on the most vulnerable children, and to ensure that we make the choices that work to protect them.
Let's look at the measures that other countries have adopted which have allowed them to lift more children out of poverty and deprivation even as they struggle with the aftermath of recession, and see what we may be able to learn. It is possible to ensure that the children of recession have a brighter future, but the right choices need to be made if we are to protect the most vulnerable.