Investing in childhood

Kate Bell

Political commitment to ending child poverty isn’t what it used to be. From 2010’s dizzy heights of embedding the target to abolish child poverty by 2020 in legislation, we now find it – potentially – downgraded to a footnote in the history of the last Labour government. Progress towards the target has stalled, with June’s figures showing a flatlining of the previous reductions in relative poverty, as incomes fell across both low and middle income households. The absolute figures showed a worrying tick upwards, as the incomes of those at the bottom failed to keep pace with inflation. And as the prospects of hitting the 2020 target recede, those on left and right are increasingly questioning its status and usefulness, in both policy and political terms.

A focus on child poverty now seems such a fixture of the policy landscape that it’s possible to forget why we started concentrating on this area in the first place. Part of the emphasis on poverty among children came from a simple focus on the numbers. While in the 1960s and 1970s children had experienced poverty at about the same rate as the rest of the nation, from the late 70s onwards, poverty among children overtook even the rapidly increasing overall rates.

As child poverty grew, so did the evidence of the damage that it can do to children’s lives. Childhood suffers when families are poor, with recent research by the Children’s Society on children’s subjective wellbeing finding that children in the poorest 20 per cent had “much lower wellbeing than average”. Of course poverty isn’t the only factor that matters here – the research shows that family life, satisfaction with home and school, relationships with friends, a sense of autonomy and health are all important.

Poverty not only damages children’s lives in the here and now, but as extensive research evidence shows, harms their future prospects too. To take just one example, research by Jo Blanden, Steve Machin and Kirstine Hansen for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) found that growing up in poverty reduces future earnings by between 15 and 28 per cent. Recent research by Donald Hirsch published by the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) estimates the knock-on costs of child poverty to total around £29bn a year.

Focusing on why we tackle child poverty helps us to think about how we talk about the issue in a way that may be more resonant with public debates. It’s not that the public don’t see child poverty as important: 82 per cent in a recent YouGov poll for the End Child Poverty coalition said that child poverty should be a priority for any government to tackle, and 64 per cent said that the current government isn’t doing enough. But as Ruth Lister has written, “no-one ever marched under a banner” of “proud to be poor”, and both parents and children are naturally reluctant to identify their problems as those of poverty. However, it’s hard to find a parent  who doesn’t think that their kids should have a decent childhood, or the best possible chances in the future. We could do more to talk about what that positive vision might look like, as well as how child poverty is a barrier to achieving it.

How do we prevent poverty? Widespread international evidence shows that countries with low child poverty rates combine high rates of maternal employment with (normally universal) benefits that meet the additional costs of children. We need more affordable childcare and a labour market that better enables parents to combine work and parenting to improve our internationally poor performance on maternal employment, but this isn’t an alternative to investment in financial support for children. Wages aren’t designed to vary with the number of children in a family, and even a more generous or living wage won’t be enough to meet the costs of children alone. That’s not to say it wouldn’t help.

While, at present, the UK tilts towards spending on benefits rather than on services, that’s predominantly because our highly unequal labour market makes the cost of bringing up families on a minimum that much higher. But as William Beveridge spelt out, a full-employment policy and universal family allowances aren’t either/or policies, but essential complements, both ensuring that families don’t face destitution during periods of unemployment, and that they will always be better off in paid work. We need to resist the temptation to bring everything down to a question of where to place the Treasury’s marginal pound; families need both childcare and help with the costs of children.

What should we do to improve the experience of children who live on a low income today – to ensure that they can fully participate in society? One strategy is to reduce the areas in which income is what shapes their lives – to decommodify the experience of childhood. Universal free school meals – already adopted by several local authorities – would not only remove a continued source of stigma for poor children, but also improve work incentives and increase educational attainment. Local authorities have huge scope to ensure that all services – whether a swimming pool or a library with internet access – are equally accessible to all children, and that children don’t feel that the poor quality of the neighbourhoods in which they live reflect their social status. A focus on children’s experience may also put some constraints on our other policy options – evidence suggests that children’s wellbeing is affected by the time they spend with their families, suggesting some limits to a strategy of asking all parents to work full time.

The importance of breaking the link between family income and children’s outcomes is now common parlance across the political spectrum, with the coalition government investing heavily in rolling out additional early years education for disadvantaged pupils, and in the pupil premium for schools with children taking up free school meals, as well as an increased cross-party focus on health inequalities.

Focusing on a lifecycle approach to poverty gives us a range of interventions we can feel confident are making a difference to the lives of children. Part of the reason for that confidence should be the success of measures in each of these areas in the last decade. We know that we can increase maternal employment: the lone parent employment rate increased by 14 percentage points since 1997. We know we can improve children’s wellbeing: in Unicef’s most recent assessment of child wellbeing in rich countries, the UK moved from 29th – last place – to 16th over the 2000s. And we know we can make progress on breaking the link between poverty and low educational attainment: the incredible performance of London’s schools, in which the performance of children on free school meals has overtaken the national average for all children (poor and non-poor) is a corrective to any idea that policy can’t make a difference.

Can we afford to do all of these things at once? Not to the extent that we want to. But none of these areas are those where the state is going to simply stop spending money; the challenge is to pick the smartest, most cost-effective interventions within each area, rather than setting up straw man debates between ‘incomes or services’ ‘transfers or employment’, when the reality is that we’ll always need a bit of both. How will we know if we’re getting this right? The 2020 target sets out a metric for our overall vision, but we need to focus on some outcome measures that show whether we’re heading in the right direction. Measuring our progress in increasing parental employment, improving children’s wellbeing, and narrowing the gap in educational attainment might be one way to do that. Most of all though, we need to keep in mind why tackling child poverty matters. It’s not a narrow statistical concept, but an investment in securing decent childhoods and decent futures for all.

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