The Blog

Is a Child's Future Determined By Their Background in the UK?

In a time of economic austerity it is hardly surprising that public opinion has turned to those receiving benefits from the state, particularly those who do not work. Repeated stereotyping and manipulation of statistics in the media have painted many of Britain's poorest citizens as lazy good-for-nothings living a life of luxury at our expense.

The UK appears to be in the grip of a 'conservative moment'. In his book, the GP Benjamin Daniels refers to such a moment; it is the fleeting sense of indignant haughtiness experienced by a tax-payer confronted by somebody who has never worked, will never work and is entirely supported by the welfare state. Such a moment might best describe the prevailing attitude towards so-called 'benefit scroungers' in the UK, and it is allowing our government to further impoverish the very poorest in our country.

In a time of economic austerity it is hardly surprising that public opinion has turned to those receiving benefits from the state, particularly those who do not work. Repeated stereotyping and manipulation of statistics in the media have painted many of Britain's poorest citizens as lazy good-for-nothings living a life of luxury at our expense. In reality, jobseeker's allowance accounts for only 3.2% of the benefits granted by the UK Department of Work and Pensions. Blog's such as A Girl Called Jack describe in painful detail the realities of living under the poverty line in modern Britain, and should dispel any myths of such luxury.

It cannot be denied that there are some adults who have never worked, and some who never will. In economic terms, these people are a drain on the welfare state. It may also be that some of these unemployed people are indeed lazy, and have no desire to work. In reality, though, such cases can largely be attributed to the UK's ailing job market or a multitude of mental and physical illnesses which prevent individuals from earning a wage.

Upon reflection, it seems arrogant to accuse those who have not received sufficient support throughout their childhood and later in life of laziness or of a lack of desire to work. The upbringing of a child is primarily the responsibility of its parent or parents, but in many cases figures are absent or themselves incapable of properly supporting a child. By the time many of these children are adults, they are more likely than others to have few or no qualifications, and to suffer from illnesses which prevent them from working.

Roughly a third of British children live in poverty, with just under half of them living in 'severe poverty'. Recent data from the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission shows that gaps between social groups are clear at an early age; by the age of 3, the children of graduates are on average 12.5 months ahead in terms of vocabulary than the children of the least educated. More than this, poorer children have less access to educational materials such as books and computers. This social fissure continues to grow throughout a child's education.

Less than half of those students entitled to free school meals achieve 5 GCSEs at grade C or above, a mere 36% compared to 63% of non-eligible students. Young people belonging to this group are also less than half as likely to progress to university as others by the age of 19, and are more than twice as likely as others to be out of education, employment or training by that age. The current and previous governments have prioritised A Levels and academic forms of further education, leaving a damaging lack of funding for other types of vocational courses.

In the UK, a mere 1 in every 7 children from the poorest households go on to become high-earners. In high-income families, that same figure is nearly half. Currently, the relationship between the income of parents and their children is more than twice as strong in the UK than in Canada, Australia or Finland. That is not to say that those from low-income households cannot become high-achievers, but that it is much less likely for them to do so.

The lack of social mobility in Britain today is undeniable, and until it is addressed the poorest will be largely trapped in a cycle of poverty. Evidence from studies conducted in the UK has shown that a year of youth unemployment may have dire consequences for an individual's future; on average it reduced earnings by 6% a decade later, and entailed an extra month of unemployment annually until the individual's mid-30s.

My generation will pay for the current high levels of youth unemployment, and the cycles of wealth and opportunity which underpin our society will be reinforced. Children from poorer families are more likely to underachieve academically, to experience unemployment, and to earn less over the course of their lifetimes. Their children will be disadvantaged as they were, and many of them will struggle to escape from poverty through poor education, a lack parental support and a scarcity of vocational training outside of university.

It is not only a child's education which reinforces structures of poverty and opportunity in the UK. Many children living beneath the poverty line grow up in abusive households or in households where parents struggle with drug or alcohol abuse. The implications of such an upbringing are in many cases more damaging than a lack of opportunity. Whether these children continue to live in such homes or are taken into care by social services, these experiences are often traumatic and damage a child's emotional wellbeing.

Research by the American Academy of Paediatrics found that increases in levels of poverty entailed an increase in cases of child maltreatment. In his study of the long-term effects of child abuse upon individuals, David Zielinksi found several worrying trends. Children who experienced physical or sexual abuse, or were severely neglected, were more likely to grow up to be unemployed, poor, and using social services than those without such a history.

Whilst Zielinski's findings were related to the US, the content is hardly irrelevant in the context of modern day Britain. Adults who had experienced any form of maltreatment as children were more than two times as likely to be unemployed than those who had not. Moreover, individuals who had experienced physical abuse as a child were 60% more likely than non-victims to be under the poverty line.

Other studies have served to underline the link between growing up in an abusive home, or around substance abuse, and future problems with addiction. Exposure to violence and victimization was found to significantly increase an individual's substance use as little as three years later, whether it took place in the home or in other environments.

Before we accuse 'benefit scroungers' of bloodsucking off the state, we might consider that certain individuals have been let down by their families and by that very state itself. If a young person is so emotionally-damaged or mentally-ill by adulthood that they cannot cope with work, that person should not be another character in the Daily Mail soap opera. Instead, it should be considered a tragedy that the so-called 'welfare state' has failed them so completely by such a young age.

The implications of child poverty are clear. Britain is a country severely lacking in social mobility, and thus condemning most of its poorest to a life below the breadline. Whether it be through a lack of parental support, a scarcity of opportunity, or the damage caused by an upbringing in an abusive home, many of Britain's children are being failed before they have a chance to flourish.