Coronavirus will cause child poverty to soar. So what can we do about it? | Mary O’Hara | Society

Alison Garnham

Alison Garnham: chief executive, Child Poverty Action Group

The Covid-19 pandemic is putting into reverse the jobs boom led by women and low-paid workers, and seems likely to drive a further rise in child poverty. Increases in universal credit and working tax credit to help families face the economic impacts of the coronavirus are welcome, but they don’t go far enough. An increase in child benefit of £10 a week per child would do much more, reducing child poverty by five percentage points compared to less than two percentage points as a result of the increases in universal credit and working tax credit.

What we learned between 1999 (when Tony Blair announced his ambition to end child poverty) and 2010 is that if you throw parents a lifeline, they will pull themselves free of poverty. That lifeline is desperately needed now. By 2010, the UK was halfway to achieving its target of cutting child poverty to 10% in 20 years. But 10 years of austerity has resulted in a £40bn annual reduction in spending on social security. We have more food banks in the UK than we have branches of McDonald’s and homelessness is rising. Furloughing will not help people who have lost a job due to school closures or who have simply got sacked.

Without immediate action, we will shortly exceed the poverty levels seen back in 1997 when child poverty was at 34% (4.3 million children). This ought to be the best country in the world to grow up in, but we cannot begin to claim that while so many children’s lives are blighted by poverty.

Gordon Brown

Gordon Brown: Labour chancellor (1997- 2007) and prime minister (2007-10)

Covid-19 will push up child poverty for, sadly and unjustifiably, missing from the government rescue proposals is action to stop its inexorable rise. Had they raised child benefit and child tax credits, we could prevent hundreds of thousands of children being pushed into poverty. Now, poverty may rise beyond 5 million children by 2022, 2 million more than in 2015.

We will remember the response to Covid-19 for many things: but a stain on our country, a scar on our soul as a nation, will be pushing child poverty in the UK to its highest level since statistics were first recorded 50 years ago – much worse than during the Thatcher years, when child poverty doubled.

Having both universal child benefit and backing it up with tax credits is what I think took 2 million children out of poverty before 2010. But now, in real terms, child benefit is worth about £6 or £7 less than in 2010: that’s about a third less in value. Families are also losing out because wages have not been rising in the way that they should. But a decent wage has got to be accompanied by generous child benefits and by tax credits. There’s no doubt about it: you need all three.

I wish I’d gone further [while in government] but yes, we were trying. The scandal to me is that the numbers in poverty are still rising. Austerity being over does not actually ring true when the people who have suffered most from austerity are suffering more than ever.


Charlotte [not her real name]: self-employed therapist and single mum of two children

My son usually has free school meals. Right now the school is providing a £20 voucher each week. That’s helpful, but it still doesn’t cover feeding him lunches for a whole week. And they can only be used in three supermarkets and sometimes the prices have gone up a bit too.

I live in a housing association flat in Leeds and I phoned my housing manager and told him that because of the crisis, I didn’t have any work. I could try to work online, but the people I work with don’t want that – and anyway they don’t have the money to pay me any more. Everyone is in the same boat right now. I had been taking a bit of time out to build my business, and then all this happened so I don’t qualify for the chancellor’s offer of help for self-employed people. I’ve put in a claim for universal credit. I’m waiting to hear about that.

So far, we have food in the cupboard and a friend recently brought us round a bag of basics. But I’ve had to tell my son “we are on rations”, so you can’t help yourself because I don’t know how long that’s going to have to last for.

The government could do something right away about bills, like gas and electricity. Especially the meters. It feels like the bills go up every six months. It’s diabolical. I’ve seen families paying £10 a day. People on benefits can’t afford that. A lot of people end up facing the choice of either keeping warm or eating. The government could immediately freeze costs, or at least stop increases.

Naomi Eisenstadt

Naomi Eisenstadt: research fellow, LSE and University of Oxford, and former director of New Labour’s Sure Start unit and Social Exclusion Task Force

The impact of Covid-19 on low-income families with children is likely to be more severe in the short term and recovery for these families will take much longer.

What’s needed is demonstrable political will and focus on the policies affecting families with children in deep poverty. The government should start by using the most accurate poverty measures. The Social Metrics Commission measure includes family factors that increase the likelihood of poverty, such as a family member with disabilities, while the “minimum income standard” focuses on regional variations in the cost of living. For example, housing costs in the south-east are much higher than the north-west of England.

We also need to stop blaming parents for their poverty. The majority of poor parents are poor because their income is not adequate, and poverty makes it harder for parents to follow parenting recommendations. Support for homework is harder in cramped, insecure accommodation. Parental behaviour does make a difference, decreasing the likelihood that today’s poor children will grow up to be poor adults themselves, but it is unlikely to reduce poverty for today’s children. The coronavirus will see many parents, particularly those on low wages, lose their jobs through no fault of their own. Any new policy should be assessed on two factors: will it increase families’ income or decrease costs?

Kevin Hollinrake

Kevin Hollinrake MP: Conservative chair, All-Party Parliamentary Group on Poverty

What gets measured gets done. Therefore, you have to agree on the measure. From there, it’s a pretty simple iterative process of identifying the best solutions, testing what works and doing more of what works best.

In the UK, we’re stuck on first base, with the government (absolute poverty) and the opposition (relative poverty) constantly and conveniently quoting two different measures. The first step should be to agree on a universal measure. The one I like best is produced by the Social Metrics Commission.

We know that roughly 4 million people have been pushed into poverty because of housing costs. We also know that the government spends £22bn a year on housing benefit and that this has doubled since the early 2000s. About £10bn of this is paid to the private rented sector.

What an opportunity. If we built many more truly affordable houses to rent and buy we could take millions of people out of poverty and reduce a significant burden from the shoulders of the taxpayer. It’s even more important now due to the coronavirus crisis. This will inevitably put many household budgets under severe pressure – and will result in evictions and homelessness.

The good news is that there is a shovel-ready plan for this. If we increased our investment in affordable housing to £12.8bn a year over a sustained period, we could deliver millions of truly affordable, well-designed homes in beautiful mixed-tenure developments that would remove millions from poverty and reduce the taxpayers’ housing benefit burden.

Ruth Lister

Ruth Lister: Labour peer and emeritus professor of social policy, Loughborough University

It’s not fashionable to emphasise how much money in pockets matters, despite research showing its impact on children’s education and health, and how it makes parenting easier. Social security has a crucial role to play in reducing child poverty among both out-of-work and in-work families. That will be even more important now, as financial pressures increase – yet children’s benefits have been ignored in the government’s support package.

We need a new cross-government strategy embracing the tax-benefits system, employment and a range of services, with clear targets. This should be kickstarted with a real increase in child benefit, plus a commitment to restore, over the lifetime of this parliament, the 6% loss in the value of benefits due to the four-year freeze, and to end the two-child limit and benefit cap, both of which divorce entitlement from need at the expense of children in particular.

Lisa Harker

Lisa Harker: director, Family Justice Observatory, The Nuffield Foundation

Child poverty will increase dramatically in light of the pandemic: jobs are being lost and livelihoods threatened. The most vulnerable in our society are set to pay the highest price. But the pandemic also offers a once-in-several-generations opportunity to press the “reset” button on our economy and to think hard about the kind of society we want to be. Questions are already being asked about the pay of key workers, the merits of a universal basic income and the morality of wealthy business owners who furlough their workers. Communities are coming together in ways that have not been visible for decades.

This crisis presents us with an opportunity to address the underlying causes of child poverty. We can learn from both the successes and failures of the last 20 years. Child poverty fell dramatically in the five years following Blair’s pledge in 1999 because more generous benefits and tax credits were directed towards the least well-off. Until governments around the globe are willing and able to address the weaknesses of capitalism that contribute towards family poverty (such as the inequalities in the gig economy), government-led income redistribution will be essential.

While having enough money is vital, other things matter too. Strong relationships, a decent education, and good physical and mental health are also important weapons against poverty. Successive governments have recognised this. But political short-termism has undermined efforts.

Programmes such as Sure Start, building in support from when a child is born, had the right ingredients but were expanded too quickly and were diluted in the process. And the investment needed to achieve transformational change, such as creating a highly skilled early years’ workforce to deliver such life-changing work, never materialised.

You cannot tackle poverty by stealth. It requires the will of the people. Making progress seemed relatively easy when swimming with the tide of economic prosperity, but as soon as the economy dipped, the lack of overt public consent for income redistribution and family support meant they were easy targets for cuts. It wasn’t that the public opposed such measures, rather that they had never really been asked to support them.

In a highly individualistic society, political leaders have to be prepared to make the case for long-term investment to support the most vulnerable. So far, they seem to have left that job to the film director Ken Loach. Perhaps this pandemic will help us realise just how much we need to look out for each other.

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