It’s going to take more than money to reduce child poverty

It appears that child poverty reports are like buses.  You wait a while for one to come out and then two arrive on the same day.

Yesterday UNICEF released their wide-ranging Report Card 10 which sets out the latest international comparison data for 35 European countries on child poverty, measured separately through rates of child deprivation and of relative income poverty.  Also the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) published its Rethinking Child Poverty policy paper which questions the way child poverty is measured.

The good news is that child poverty in the UK according to the government measure  has come down from 3.4 million to 2.6 million between 1997 and 2010.  The bad news is that it still means that 21% of children are living below the poverty line.

The Government is committed to  eradicating child poverty by 2020, but although this is a commendable target it looks unlikely to be achieved.  Reducing UK child poverty levels to 10% through the tax and welfare system by 2020 would cost an estimated £19bn.  The current Government is unlikely to be able to find that sort of money in the current economic climate.  In fact UNICEF expects that rather than continuing to fall, child poverty will actually rise over the next few years as government cuts take effect and that’s really not what those struggling below the poverty line will want to be hearing right now.

Compared to other European countries we’re not doing too badly although it depends which measurement you use.  UNICEF have two methods of measuring poverty.  The first is the Child Deprivation Index which considers a child to be “deprived” if he or she lacks two or more things from a list of 14 basic items. The list includes having three meals a day, two pairs of properly fitting shoes (including all-weather shoes) and a quiet place to do homework.  The UK comes 9th out of 29 countries under this system and ranks above Germany and France.  However, according to the alternative Relative Poverty Measure which examines the percentage of children living in homes below 50 per cent of national median disposable household income, the UK comes 22nd out of 35 countries.

This is the problem with measuring poverty.  It’s not as straightforward as it might seem at first.  Depending on how you analyse the figures we are doing both relatively well and badly at the same time.  Both the CSJ and UNICEF agree that child poverty is a complex issue and that more should be done to reduce it despite the current economic climate, but they disagree on how that should be achieved.  Our Government’s measure of child poverty is along the lines of UNICEF’s Relative Poverty Measure looking at households 60% below median income.  UNICEF recommends that our government keeps this system and looks to further increase household incomes to reduce poverty levels.

This method would certainly work, but the CSJ argues that the Relative Poverty Measure is flawed.  As average incomes fluctuate, so does the line where poverty is drawn.  A family could be deemed as being in poverty one week but not the next without their circumstances actually changing.  Beyond this difficulty the CSJ’s main point is that focusing on income does not reflect accurately the quality of a child’s life.  There is no guarantee that giving parents more money will actually improve a child’s life if the additional income is not used effectively.  In that respect UNICEF’s Child Deprivation Index gives a more holistic interpretation of how poverty is measured.

The CSJ consulted over 300 poverty-fighting charities and social enterprises in  2010.  This is a brief summary of their findings:

When asked what single aspect of early childhood has the greatest influence on children’s life chances, the top responses were love and affection in a committed family setting, good parenting and the home environment. Respondents were clear that fractured, unstable or unloving families – regardless of material wealth – have a serious impact on a child’s life chances, since such an environment can damage self-esteem, trust, confidence, and a child’s ability to form positive relationships later in life.

On the issue of family earnings, many responded that while higher family income is beneficial to children and necessary to the point that it meets their essential needs, it is not the money that has the greatest influence on outcomes for the child. Rather, income is related to outcomes for children because of its relational and developmental repercussions. For example, a family is often better off because the parents are in work, which means they have higher aspirations, better self-esteem, and set a good example to their children. Financial stability and financial capability was cited as more important than the actual level of income. It was also widely observed that family stability and values have a greater impact on a child than material prosperity.

Increasing families’ incomes would certainly be beneficial, but it is not the silver bullet that will improve children’s lives across the board.  Stability is surely a more important factor and it would make a great deal of sense for our government to expand the criteria it uses for measuring poverty beyond just lack of money.  While government finances are tight, as they are at the moment, it becomes even more important that they are used wisely to get the most from them.

The Bible has plenty to say on money and poverty:

‘Those who give to the poor will lack nothing,  but those who close their eyes to them receive many curses.’  (Proverbs 28:27)

‘The righteous care about justice for the poor,  but the wicked have no such concern.’  ( Proverbs 29:7)

‘I know that the Lord secures justice for the poor  and upholds the cause  of the needy.’  (Psalms 140:12)

In Luke 11 Jesus tells us without mincing his words to be generous to the poor.  If we take the Bible seriously then we have to acknowledge God’s heart for the poor and the need for us as humans to have at least a basic level of material stability.  As a society we have a responsibility to see that happen.  It also tells us that money definitely won’t solve everything though; we need love, acceptance and a sense of worth to flourish too.

You can listen to David Bull, Executive Director of UNICEF UK and Christian Guy from the Centre for Social Justice debating child poverty on Radio 4’s Today programme here.  I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.



Categories: Children & families, Government, Poverty

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