Child poverty: Society is more unfair now and work does not pay in the same way it did - Hannah Davies

It is often confusing to me how little empathy we can find sometimes towards our fellow humans. And it is even more confusing to me when we choose to ignore a child’s suffering and to excuse that suffering by blaming it on their parents not working hard enough. Particularly when we know absolutely nothing about those circumstances.

Our Child of the North and the Cost of Living Crisis report demonstrated the hugely unfair outcomes children based in the North of England are facing today. It is good to see that columnist Bill Carmichael recognises the “terrible human cost and loss of potential caused by this poverty”.

But citing work as the sole way to escape poverty is wildly simplistic. Poverty and worklessness are not the same thing.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Let’s start by looking at the reality of child poverty in Britain. Child income poverty rates in the United Kingdom are shamefully the highest among the world's richest countries according to UNICEF with only Turkey and Columbia ranked lower.

Children eating their school dinner from trays and plates during lunch. PIC: Ben Birchall/PA WireChildren eating their school dinner from trays and plates during lunch. PIC: Ben Birchall/PA Wire
Children eating their school dinner from trays and plates during lunch. PIC: Ben Birchall/PA Wire

We rank bottom of the table for changes in those rates in the past decade with a 20 per cent rise in child poverty rates. We are failing our children in the UK and it is getting worse, relative child poverty is dramatically increasing.

Like the columnist, my parents, born into council housing and both attending Oxford University, benefited from the most equal time in our society.

The Equality Trust shows the UK became much more equal in the post-war years, with the share of income going to the top 10 per cent of the population falling from 34.6 per cent in 1938 to 21 per cent in 1979, while the share going to the bottom 10 per cent rose slightly, helping opportunities for social mobility. Since 1979 this has reversed sharply.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

It is a fact that society is more unfair now, and that work does not pay in the same way it did, which stifles opportunities for children and young people and damages society for everyone.

It is appalling that we do not care enough about our own children to make sure they can grow up with enough food to eat, warm homes to live in and an education that can help them move out of poverty. These are the drivers that allow children to flourish and we are not providing them, particularly not in the North of England.

Let me spell it out. People in the poorest neighbourhoods, which are largely in the North of England, work an hour more on average than those in the rest of the country, our report for the APPG for Left Behind Neighbourhoods shows, and never has in-work poverty been so high. Data from the Department of Work and Pensions showed in-work poverty has increased by 1.5 million people since 2010. Research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (2020/21) shows 61 per cent of working-age adults in poverty lived in a household where at least one adult was in work, and 11 percent of all workers lived in a household in poverty. The poorest fifth of UK households would need to spend 50 per cent of their disposable income on food to meet the Government's Eatwell Guide costs.

Work increasingly does not pay and benefits do not cover the most basic costs leading families into destitution.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Wide-ranging evidence shows child poverty cannot be addressed only by improving employment. The differences in child poverty between the UK, and countries with very low levels of child poverty are largely explained by differences in welfare benefit provision as well as levels of wages of those in work.

Children bear the brunt of this poverty, especially children in the North of England.

Babies in the North of England are more likely to die than in the rest of England and babies born in the North will live on average a year less than in the rest of England, our Health Equity North 2023 report shows. Schools in the North have received less funding than their southern counterparts over the last decade, and pupils in London get 9.7 per cent more funding than those in the South and get a third of a grade on average higher, our Child of the North APPG Report on Inequalities in Education shows.

Increasing benefits would lift children out of poverty, it would mean families who suffer through hard times have a safety net and aren’t trapped in a horrific cycle they are unable to get out of. It would stop children being hungry and cold and aid their education and health. It would also help to make work pay so that we escape that situation today of increasing in-work poverty.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The government says absolute poverty rates have fallen, it's what they say in response to all the data showing that they have failed using relative poverty measures. But destitution is increasing and we’re seeing a rise in Victorian-era diseases – and relative poverty measures are the international standard. Poverty is not just a matter of whether you have x or y material possessions, it matters because of where it places you in relation to others in society. Relative poverty is social exclusion.

Hannah Davies is executive director of Health Equity North.

Comment Guidelines

National World encourages reader discussion on our stories. User feedback, insights and back-and-forth exchanges add a rich layer of context to reporting. Please review our Community Guidelines before commenting.