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Last Updated: Monday, 25 July, 2005, 09:43 GMT 10:43 UK
Breaking the cycle of child poverty
By Neera Sharma
Policy officer, Barnardos

A child in a playground
More than one in four children live in poverty

Poverty is the single greatest threat to the well-being of children in the UK.

More than one in four children lives in poverty.

In some regions, child poverty is even higher: rising to 54% in inner London.

But the starkest deprivation is found in tiny, almost hidden pockets: there are some wards in the UK where over 90% of children live in poverty.

Basic needs

Poverty is increasingly seen in relative terms: it is about not having access to what others in your society take for granted.

Children from the bottom social class are four times more likely to die in an accident

A third of children in poverty go without the meals, or toys, or the clothes that they need.

For poor families, raising a child is not just about struggling to make ends meet; it's about struggling to give their child a chance to grow and thrive.

Serious threat

Growing up in poverty can affect every area of a child's development - social, educational and personal.

A child outside a police station
Children in poverty are more likely to get into trouble with the police

Living on a low income means that children's diet and health can suffer.

Poorer children are more likely to live in sub-standard housing and in areas with few shops or amenities, where children have little or no space to play safely.

Children from the bottom social class are four times more likely to die in an accident and have nearly twice the rate of long-standing illness than those living in households with high incomes.

They are also more likely to be smaller at birth and shorter in height.

Children who grow up in poverty are less likely to do well at school and have poorer school attendance records.

And the long term effects of being brought up in poverty can be even starker.

As adults they are more likely to suffer ill-health, be unemployed or homeless. They are more likely to become involved in offending, drug and alcohol abuse. They are more likely to become involved in abusive relationships.

Persistent poverty

Once in poverty, children often stay in poverty well into adult life.

Recent research has found that most people remain in the same quarter of income distribution as their parents.

In fact, the chance of being better off than their parents has reduced for people who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s, compared with people who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s.

The key factors which suggest that children will fail to break free of the poverty cycle include: missing periods of school, being in care, being known to the police, misuse of drugs, teenage parenthood, and being out of education, employment or training between the ages of 16 and 18.

Targets

Ending child poverty by 2020 is one of the long term goals of the government.

The government has concentrated on employment as the primary way out of poverty for families with children.

Tax credits have been introduced to supplement the incomes of working families.

The government can claim some success with child poverty, despite well publicised difficulties with tax credit overpayment: Overall, 700,000 children have been lifted out of poverty.

However, if the government wants to help the remaining children in poverty, more than tax credits are needed.

There are 600,000 children under three living in poverty and only 42,740 free or subsidised childcare places for disadvantaged families

The widespread availability of good quality child care is crucial, both in enabling parents to work or train for jobs, and in giving children a head start in life.

Early years care and education is known to improve children's future educational achievement and health, but almost all child care services for children under three are private sector arrangements for those whose parents can pay.

There are 600,000 children under three living in poverty and only 42,740 free or subsidised childcare places for disadvantaged families.

Work is not an option for all families, especially if they are caring for a disabled child or have health or disability problems themselves.

The children in these families grow up in persistent poverty and they must be the target of specific government policy if the goal of ending child poverty is to be realised.

Even where they are able to overcome the obstacles to work, the gains from earning for many families will be modest, and some families may even find themselves worse off after returning to work.

Work does not guarantee a route out of poverty.

Some of the initiatives set up to tackle exclusion are actually pushing those people not involved further towards the margins.

State benefit link

The Child Tax Credit established a guaranteed minimum income level for families in work, but there are no minimum levels for those on benefit.

For those who do not have paid work, income can be far below the poverty line.

Weekly income support for a couple with two children is around 178, compared with 253 in earnings at poverty level.

For a single parent with two children, income support is 147, compared with 175 in earnings at poverty level.

Two Victorian children

League tables on child poverty among developed nations show a clear relationship between levels of state benefits and the rate of child poverty.

All countries that have a high rate of social expenditure, such as Denmark, Finland and Sweden, have correspondingly low rates of child poverty.

However, many families even miss out on benefits they are entitled to because of the complexities of the system, language barriers and a lack of clear information.

What families need to get out of poverty are good local services, employment opportunities that support family life and an adequate income.

Child poverty is a social injustice, it is wasteful and it carries huge costs, both for the children involved and for society.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by the BBC unless specifically stated.


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