Public anger and media speculation are currently focused on Britain’s failing railways. We witness daily outrage at the shortcomings of our public services after years of neglect. These are real issues. But where is the public outrage and anger about the four million children in the UK who live in poverty? We have the world’s fourth largest economy and yet official figures demonstrate that we have the highest rate of child poverty in Europe.
There is overwhelming research evidence that childhood poverty has a dramatic and long-term impact on individuals, communities and the society we live in. We know that children who grow up in poor families are more likely to leave home early, to do less well in school and are less likely to work when they reach adulthood. Adolescents who grew up poor believe health is a matter of luck, play truant and expect to leave school at the age of sixteen.
In March 1999 Tony Blair committed the government to ending child poverty within a generation. This is the most radical children’s policy initiative since the founding of the welfare state and yet it has met with general public indifference. Gordon Brown has personally championed this policy, increasing Child Benefit, introducing the Working Families’ Tax Credit and creating the Children’s Fund.
In the forthcoming Budget he will set the rate for the Child Tax Credit. The amount he sets will be critical in demonstrating that the government means business and recognises the real costs of bringing up children. Just as important will be a commitment to increase this credit each subsequent year to meet the government’s target of lifting a million children out of poverty by 2004.
Tax and benefits are crucial to achieving the aim of ending child poverty, but poverty is complex and goes beyond the neat and tidy demarcations of Whitehall departments. Poverty is certainly about not having enough money, but it is also about addressing poverty of experience, hope and aspiration. That means children growing up in safe and secure neighbourhoods with affordable housing, play and leisure facilities. It means education services which recognise the difficulties poor children face, and works with them to achieve their individual potential as well as excellence. It means that health services need to be accessible and an end to the obscenity of children who are born poor dying from ill health earlier in adult life. It means supporting families when they are experiencing problems.
Above all, it means not simply seeing children as the problem but working with them towards a solution, an approach that the Children and Young Persons Unit is promoting as an integral part of their strategy. That is complex, needs thinking about and requires action not just in the short term, but also as part of a sustained long-term programme.
Government does have the key role in delivering this ambitious programme and they need to initiate an open debate about how we are to measure progress.
But government cannot do this alone. We all need to play a role. The End Child Poverty Coalition was formed last year by twelve leading charities to keep this and every future government to the historic pledge to end child poverty. Trade unions, faith groups, the business community and the public sector all have a direct interest, and we are now seeking to engage them in action.
We all need to work together to create opportunities on the ground that will make a real difference to the lives of poor children. We need to create a sense of outrage about the plight of children in poverty. We need to win the hearts and minds of the public. All of us will ultimately need to make individual and difficult choices. Will we pay more money to poor children and demand world-class services for them as well – not just because our hearts tell us it is the right thing to do, but because our minds tell us it is the right investment?
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