The big warning in Unicef’s report on child wellbeing

Unicef’s analysis of child wellbeing across the developed world, released today, is emphatic that increasing family incomes is a critical tool to boost children’s educational success, health and happiness. In saying this, it is issuing a pretty clear warning to the United Kingdom government that poverty-producing policies will deprive children of happy, healthy and secure childhoods.

The UK government should respond by placing action on material poverty at the heart of its life chances strategy, expected in the next few months.

But there are worrying signs that it intends to do just the opposite.

Consider the abolition of child poverty targets, and the torrent of tax and benefit policies which are set to create the biggest increase (a 50 per cent rise by 2020) in child poverty in a generation, and it seems a fairly safe bet that improving families’ financial circumstances will not be central to the government’s life chances agenda.

UNICEF found that the UK’s social security system does more ‘heavy lifting’ to reduce income inequality than in any other developed country. But the social security system the report talks about is the one we had in 2013. As cuts start to bite, it’s not the one we have today and it’s not the one we will have by the end of the parliament. Our social security system’s ability to prevent poverty is being degraded.

In January, the prime minister delivered an address on life chances set out his intention to dispense with ‘outdated thinking about poverty’ focused on economic measures, and to adopt ‘a more social approach’. David Cameron is right that home life, as well as the broader social environment in which children live, is central to their wellbeing and development. But it is simply not credible to ignore the role which money plays in making it possible for families to provide the best home environments for their children, and how poverty makes this harder. These links are so strong that it is impossible to talk meaningfully about life chances without talking about poverty.

Money means the ability to meet basic needs for food, warmth and secure housing, and also allows children to pursue hobbies, avoid isolation, attend cultural events and take part in school trips – all of which help children to develop and gain the resilience and breadth of experience which the government wants to see. Money also means freedom from the constant worry of financial insecurity – worry which grinds away at people’s mental health over time, knowing they are one day of illness or a broken-down washing machine away from being unable to pay the bills, and which children can never be entirely shielded from.

Poverty can also force parents into impossible decisions. Do you take a sick child to the doctor immediately and miss a day of work, which could mean losing your job and being unable to pay the rent, risking eviction, or wait till the weekend in order to keep financially afloat but risk your child becoming sicker and ending up in hospital? The idea that economic circumstances have nothing to do with providing a supportive, stable, healthy home environment in which children can flourish is absurd.

History shows that policy can improve children’s life chances – bluntly, poverty is policy-sensitive. When tax credits boosted family incomes, most measures of child wellbeing went up. Low-income families started to spend more on fruit and vegetables and on their children, and less on alcohol and tobacco. Properly funded, universally-available children’s centres led to measurable improvements in home learning environments and family interactions.

Despite welcome moves on free school meals and help with childcare costs, the truth is that as low-income families with children continue to lose money and highly valued universal early years services available through children’s centres continue to be cut, the government’s actions look more like a tactical retreat than the ‘all-out assault on poverty’ the prime minister promised.

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Alison Garnham is chief executive of Child Poverty Action Group. She tweets @alisongcpag

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Photo: Charlie Baker

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