By Dr George Venturini
The United Kingdom has one of the highest rates of poverty in the industrialised world, with 4 million (almost one in three children) currently living in poverty. This number has increased dramatically in the last 30 years. (Poverty in the UK: a guide to the facts and figures, 22 March 2018, fullfact.org).
In 1979 there were around 1 in 10 children living in poverty. Inner urban areas are generally much higher.
The unprecedented austerity programme being imposed by the Conservative Party/Liberal Democrat government, including drastic cuts in social benefit entitlement and wage freezes as well as rises in fuel and food prices, was making it more difficult for families to survive. This trend in increasing poverty and misery for millions of children in the United Kingdom was set to rise, with the Institute for Fiscal Studies predicting that the figure for child poverty would have risen by 400,000 by the year 2015.
The demand on charities that assist poor families in need was increasing.
The trend in rising child poverty had taken place ever since the election of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives in 1979, driven by the offensive waged against jobs, wages and welfare provisions. For all Labour’s hand-wringing about the plight of poor families, and then Prime Minister Tony Blair’s personal pledge to “end child poverty” in a generation, the gap between the rich and poor reached record levels under Labour’s rule – 1997-2007. Even though it was targeted for special attention, child poverty fell just a few percentage points, from a high of 33 per cent in 1998, in a period of economic boom. By 2012 it was climbing and set to go beyond its previous high.
The Conservative/Liberal government was preparing itself to throw further millions of people into poverty. The government was legislating to cap the total benefit payment that can be received by a household to £26,000 (AU$46,423) per annum. The cap would have affected those in areas with high housing costs, with 55 per cent living in Central London.
The measure was reported to save £270 million (AU$482,207,491) towards the government’s overall target of cutting a massive £18 billion (AU$32,153,874,530) from the welfare bill in the lifetime of the parliament. The Observer reported a leaked government memorandum suggesting that just this one measure would have pushed 100,000 children below the poverty line – an indication of how many would have suffered the same fate as a result of overall cuts many times that figure. (D. Moore, ‘Child poverty map of UK paints a bleak picture’, 27 January 2012, wsws.org).
The resulting picture was one of a world of misery, social dereliction, mixed-up values and reprehensible moral shortcomings.
For instance: it was confirmed by the news that, according to the Land Registry, the United Kingdom was losing more than 1 billion pounds (AU$1.5 billion – in 2012) in tax as the rich and famous had registered some 94,760 properties – from townhouses and castles to country estates – into offshore companies.
How could such worldly extremes where some are wealthy beyond measure, and others are pushed to the outer edges of society and forced to live a type of twilight existence, be tolerated? Simply, ignore them.
The condition was even harsher for young migrants. According to Children’s society some asylum seekers only received half of what a comparable British family would receive in income support. It was a bleak assessment of how the welfare system treated asylum seekers. Unlike traditional benefits, which are increased every year to take inflation into account, welfare payments to asylum seekers were increased at the discretion of politicians. With the Border Agency considering whether to raise these benefit levels, charity organisations and senior Liberal Democrats were arguing for more cash.
The Children’s society informed that current payments were “unacceptably low”, forcing thousands of very vulnerable children to face severe hardship every day. It said that a single person seeking refuge in Britain would receive 37 pounds (AU$55 – in 2012) a week to live on – just a little over a half of what is paid to a British citizen.
On 29 May 2012 Unicef – the United Nations Children’s Fund – produced a piece of research which showed that the government’s austerity drive was set to reverse the strides made in reducing child poverty in the United Kingdom.
The study, Report Card 10, Measuring Child Poverty, indicated that during the early years of the recession, the United Kingdom was more successful than other rich countries in reducing child poverty and protecting children from deprivation, but warned that spending cuts would have swiftly undermined this progress.
“This report shows how committed government action can make a big difference for children. The UK should be proud that our commitment to end child poverty by 2020 in the past has seen a clear improvement in reducing child poverty and protecting vulnerable children from deprivation,” said David Bull, executive director of Unicef U.K.
“However, we know that the number of children living in poverty in the U.K. is set to increase due to spending cuts. This will be a catastrophic blow to the futures of thousands of children, putting at risk their future health, education and chances of employment.”
Unicef argued that the United Kingdom’s success in reducing child poverty over the previous decade was the result of the previous government’s drive to increase household incomes by introducing tax credits and improving public services for children.
Although the United Kingdom missed the target set by then Prime Minister Tony Blair to cut the number of children in poverty to 1.7 million by 2010, the country still saw a large reduction in child poverty as a result of government intervention, Unicef said. (In 2009-10, the last year for which figures are available, 2.6 million children in the United Kingdom were below this poverty line, according to the definition in the target).
There was growing speculation over whether the government, which in 2010 signed up to legislation committing it to a 2020 target to end child poverty, will seek to abandon the relative poverty definition.
The Centre for Social Justice – founded by Iain Duncan Smith, the secretary of state for work and pensions, when he was in opposition – has called on the government to scrap “crude and flawed yardsticks” for measuring child poverty. (A. Gentleman, ‘Child poverty in UK set to increase as result of austerity drive, says Unicef’, guardian.co.uk, 29 May 2012).
The Report noted that in a downturn, children are first to drop off the policy agenda, and said that it was evident that “frontline services for families are everywhere under strain as austerity measures increase the numbers in need while depleting the services available. It is also clear that the worst is yet to come.” … “Many families, even those on low incomes, have some form of ‘cushion’ – whether in the form of savings, assets or help from other family members – by which to maintain spending during difficult times. There is therefore almost always a time lag between the onset of an economic crisis and the full extent of its impact. Failure to protect children from poverty is one of the most costly mistakes a society can make. The heaviest cost of all is borne by the children themselves. But their nation must also pay a very significant price – in reduced skills and productivity, in lower levels of health and educational achievement, in increased likelihood of unemployment and welfare dependence, in the higher costs of judicial and social protection systems, and in the loss of social cohesion. The economic argument, in anything but the shortest term, is therefore heavily on the side of protecting children from poverty.”
Unicef warned that during times of economic recession, in the scramble to effect immediate change, all planning for future generations is perceived as of secondary importance. This is highly problematic, not only because future planning is negated in favour of a short term outlook, but because a child’s current living situation is under escalated risk during times of financial crisis. Children, as one of the most vulnerable groups of people, cannot be left out of the equation especially in times of financial recession.
The Unicef Report stated that levels of ‘relative’ and ‘absolute’ child poverty in the United Kingdom were expected to reach 24 per cent and 23 per cent of children respectively by 2020 – compared to the target figures of 10 per cent and 5 per cent set by the previous Labour government. The United Kingdom had a higher rate of child deprivation than the Netherlands and all of Scandinavia.
The shadow minister for children and families commented: “This independent report suggests that much of the good work that Labour did to address child poverty is being undermined by the Tory-led government … government cuts that go too far and too fast and the double-dip recession created in Downing Street will actually push more children and families below the breadline.”
Unicef believed that the United Kingdom had protected vulnerable children from the effects of the global financial crisis better than most other affluent nations, primarily, it claims, due to the previous Labour government’s efforts to increase household income. However, this was far from a self-congratulatory moment; the United Kingdom was still failing to meet its own targets in reducing child poverty to 1.7 million in 2010.
In 2012 in the United Kingdom, 4 million children lived in poverty, according to End Child Poverty, demonstrating the extent of this failure. All mainstream political parties had signed the Child Poverty Act of 2010, which aimed to eradicate child poverty by 2020. Whilst achievements to date had been unsatisfactory, there had been some progress over the past decade and Unicef warned that current and proposed austerity measures would have unravelled any recent progress made in tackling child poverty. (G. Wales, ‘Austerity increases child poverty, report confirms, Gillian Wales analyses a recent report from Unicef arguing cuts are increasing child poverty rates in Britain, 29 May 2012).
There was recognition that child poverty is one of the most crucial indicators for measuring successful social cohesion, a marker of well-being and future prosperity of any given nation. Long-term effects of child poverty include: issues in education, employment, mental and physical health problems and difficulties with social interaction. The standard of living encountered during a person’s childhood is recognised as being instrumental in shaping her/his future.
Absolute child poverty is a totally unacceptable occurrence in any nation, but in one of the richest nations in the world where there exists no civil war, no recent natural disasters and no endemic disease outbreaks it is a shocking disgrace. It should make governments stop and question the whole neoliberal mantra that free-markets allow wealth to ‘trickle down’ to the bottom.
Austerity measures may also affect minors in more subtle ways. There is another type of poverty, one that is more difficult to define and to quantify, that of emotional poverty. As the unemployment rate soars, many households are experiencing joblessness for the first time. Children are far from immune from the negative effects of austerity. The additional stress levels, lack of funds and general loss of confidence experienced by parents and family members must impact upon children also. It has been proven that unemployment can become cyclical for generations of families. These children are feeling both the direct and indirect outcomes of unemployment and austerity measures likely affecting their own participation in the workplace in future years.
In Scotland’s major cities, such as Glasgow and Edinburgh, the situation was much worse.
Unicef was not alone in linking austerity to increasing child poverty. The Institute for Fiscal Studies had confirmed that child poverty rates were about to soar due to the Government’s austerity agenda. Austerity measures are proving a complete failure, exacerbating the problems of unemployment and thereby increasing levels of child poverty.
State-direction job creation, along with relevant supporting policies, is the route to success in lowering the rate of child poverty in the United Kingdom. The ‘Lost Generation’ would not just be those then leaving school to no jobs and no higher and further education places, but the generation before them who are too young to be aware of their disappearing future. To put the brakes on this depressing picture Britain needs to end the madness of austerity, the chief executive of Unicef said. “Government policies to tackle the deficit must not harm children. There is only one chance at childhood – we cannot see a generation growing up in austerity denied the chance to fulfil their potential.”
Unicef‘s report said that the previous government had achieved one of the largest reductions in child poverty by providing tax credits, cash transfers and accessible public services. But it said that the United Kingdom now had a higher rate of child deprivation than Iceland, Ireland, Denmark, Finland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden. Unicef‘s league table took account of whether children have access to 14 items including three meals and fresh fruit and vegetables every day; books; outdoor leisure equipment such as a bicycle; the internet and the opportunity to celebrate special days such as birthdays.
The United Kingdom had a higher percentage of children in poverty (12 per cent) – when defined as households with income lower than 50 per cent of the national median – than 21 of 35 economically advanced countries surveyed.
In Britain, 800,000 three- and four-year-olds already enjoyed up to 15 hours of free early education every week. (A. Grice, ‘Shock report: cuts to have a ‘catastrophic’ effect on child poverty’, 30 May 2012, independent.co.uk).
The child poverty rate, though at the time thought to be stable, was predicted to begin rising again in 2013.
A spokesperson for the Child Poverty Action Group told the media that the Group was concerned that “child poverty is about to dramatically worsen. Independent analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies suggests child poverty will surge by 100,000 children a year due to the government making children and families a prime focus for their austerity agenda.” He said that the 20 billion pounds (AU$30 billion – in 2012) in cuts to the welfare budget by this government was bound to have an effect on children and families on low incomes. “There are too many people out of work; – he said – while too many people in work are on such unfair levels of pay. The cost of housing alone is so out of control that this contributes 1.2 million children to the total of 3.8 million living in poverty in the UK.”
Statistics to be published on 14 June 2012 were likely to show that the halfway target promised by Blair had been missed.
The political parties would have had a big squabble over their respective records. Labour supporters would say that a lot of progress was made. Coalition supporters would wonder whether there was as much progress as there should have been, given the billions spent. And there would have been another round of debate about changing the target.
Continued Wednesday – A cast of characters: The Monarchy (part 9)
Previous instalment – A cast of characters: The Monarchy (part 7)
Dr. Venturino Giorgio Venturini devoted some seventy years to study, practice, teach, write and administer law at different places in four continents. He may be reached at George.firstname.lastname@example.org.
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