Page last updated at 18:41 GMT, Monday, 7 April 2008 19:41 UK

Breadline living 'traps children'

17-month-old Scarlet
Emma and Scarlet live in a two-bedroom council-owned flat

Ill health, poor accommodation and a lack of opportunities are part of a trap for thousands of children living in poverty in the South East.

A 19-year-old mother from one of Kent's deprived estates told BBC South East she wants to escape the cycle.

Emma Birch lives on the Parkwood estate in Maidstone, which has the highest teenage conception rate in the county.

Her 17-month-old daughter Scarlet is one of 47,000 children in Kent living below the poverty line.

Despite the government's commitment to eradicate child poverty by 2020, there are 225,000 children living below the poverty line in the South-East, according to the Institute for Public Policy Research.

'Rough area'

The Treasury Select Committee has also raised concerns about how the government will fulfil its aim to halve child poverty by 2010

Campaign group End Child Poverty estimates one in three British children live in poverty - defined as a weekly income of less than 147 per week - with about half from single parent households.

Emma and Scarlet live in a two-bedroom council-owned flat that has bare concrete floors, no washing machine and a broken fridge.

Emma Birch
Emma grew up on the Parkwood estate but wants to move away

The trainee beautician, whose benefits cover rent and council tax, moved into the flat when she was pregnant after spending two months in bed and breakfast accommodation.

"My mum kicked me out when I was pregnant," she said.

"Nothing was here when I moved in. I had my cooker given to me.

"I need a washing machine badly. I can't afford it really, they're just really expensive."

Although Emma grew up on the Parkwood estate she wants to move away to give her daughter a better start in life.

"'It's quiet round here but up the shops it's not very nice, with teenagers hanging around. It is quite a rough area.

"I don't want Scarlet growing up round here. I want to move somewhere nice, get a house so she's got a good upbringing."

It's impossible to live on that amount of money per week and eat healthily
Christine Gaward
Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust

According to Save the Children, the majority of children in poverty live in council housing and 41% don't have their own bedrooms

More than 70% of the families cannot afford to replace broken furniture and 93% cannot afford holidays.

"I get 115 to 120 per week and it's in one hand and out the other as soon as I get it," admitted Emma.

"If I want something I just get it. If I need something and I've got the money I'll just get it."

After spending 20 on food and paying all her bills, Emma has about 30 left for the rest of the week, including travel, clothing and cigarettes.

Free childcare

Christine Gaward, head nutritionist at Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS Trust, said: "You certainly couldn't have any luxuries on 20 a week.

"It's impossible to live on that amount of money per week and eat healthily. You wouldn't be able to afford to buy fruit and vegetables."

Although she gets free childcare for two days a week while she goes to college, Emma fears she will not be able to cover the cost when she starts working.

"It would probably take quite a while to build up a decent clientele to be able to afford to pay the rent and council tax and have my own money to pay for Scarlet's needs and stuff like that," said Emma.

Emma Birch
Child poverty can lead to health problems and shorter life expectancy

It is a familiar dilemma for local authorities trying to support families on benefits.

Graham Badman, Kent County Council's managing director for children, families, health and education, said: "I don't think there is any easy solution."

He said child poverty could lead to health problems, shorter life expectancy, higher rates of teenage pregnancy, poor self esteem and lower expectations from education.

"Our job is to work with people who are facing straightened circumstances and direct them in the right way so that, when they do return to work, we can give them the right support, for example through our children's centres.

"We signpost them to the right agencies and provide the right infrastructure so that they can retain their jobs because it cannot be easy."

  • The Breadline Britain report can be seen on BBC South East Today every day this week at 1830 BST.

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