Over the next two years the number of children living in poverty is set to rise dramatically by 400,000, and may be further exacerbated by the government's decision to stop up-rating benefits in line with cost of living increases (which the government itself acknowledged could swell the figure by a further 200,000). We need urgent action to prevent children falling into the poverty trap and the government would do well to heed lessons from abroad.
A new report published by the National Children's Bureau 'Tackling child poverty and promoting children's well-being: lessons from abroad' looks at how solutions with a proven track record from other countries could be adapted to work in the UK. These include making childcare more affordable to working mothers, offering cash incentives for families that participate in initiatives that promote child health and well-being, and introducing neighbourhood 'anti-poverty zones' to provide community-based solutions to poverty. To oversee these measures requires a central ministerial board to drive forward action across government.
A key component in the mix of measures required to reduce child poverty is to make childcare more affordable to poorer families and thereby encourage more mothers into work. This is central to the approach of countries like Denmark, where 84 per cent of mothers are in employment, compared to just 67 per cent in the UK. To achieve this, the government should consider increasing the number of hours of free early education available to families, raising the proportion of childcare covered by tax credits, and making after-school care more readily available.
Supplementing families' incomes for engaging in activities that promote child health and well-being is another measure which has contributed to tackling child poverty elsewhere. A scheme in New York has shown how by providing families with additional cash on top of existing benefits or tax credits, the government could increase families' financial resources while encouraging the use of health services and regular school attendance.
As well as focusing on increasing the financial resources of individual families, measures are also required that recognize that poverty is concentrated in specific geographical areas and neighbourhoods. By improving economic opportunities, housing, infrastructure, community safety and local services, the government can turn around poverty-stricken communities. To promote this approach, government should create a number of neighbourhood-based Anti-Poverty Innovation Zones, similar to one pioneered in Northern Ireland, as a means of bringing together the range of agencies that promote children's well-being to develop community-based solutions.
To deliver such wide ranging measures requires strong guidance from central government. In Connecticut, the state government has created a special council to bring together the departments that each have a role in reducing child poverty. A similar body is required in the UK and must have the power to call other departments to account in implementing our child poverty strategy. A ministerial board, with support from senior civil servants, is needed to drive forward initiatives across government departments.
The coalition has clearly signaled that tackling child poverty is one of its priorities - in its 2010 programme for government it pledged to "maintain the goal of ending child poverty in the UK by 2020". At present it is examining how it will measure child poverty. Rather than obsessing about this when we already have internationally recognised measures set out in the Child Poverty Act ministers need to give greater consideration to introducing tried and tested measures from other countries. Children in the UK need creative solutions from Whitehall, if their lives are not to be blighted by the corrosive impacts of growing up in poverty.