Why we can't afford child poverty

By Bernadette Meaden
January 26, 2017

In 2013 Sir Michael Marmot warned that Britain faced a ‘public health timebomb’ of child poverty and inequality. He stated, "I would say to any government that cares about the health of its population: look at the impact of their policies on the lives people are able to lead and, more importantly, at the impact on inequality. Health inequality, arising from social and economic inequalities, is socially unjust, unnecessary and avoidable, and it offends against the human right to health."

Regardless, the government systematically pursued policies which they must have known, and indeed were repeatedly warned, were guaranteed to make the situation worse. Steadily reducing support for the  lowest income families through changes to the tax and benefits system has been an ongoing process, with more cuts coming.

The deplorable consequences of this approach can be seen in a report out today from  the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH). It makes grim reading. On infant mortality the UK ranks 15 out of 19 Western European countries, and has one of the highest death rates for children and young people.

Professor Neena Modi, President of the RCPCH, says, “Particularly troubling are the stark inequalities in child health that have widened in the last five years…it is tragic that the future health and happiness of a significant and growing number is in jeopardy because of an alarming gap between rich and poor.”

Alison Garnham of Child Poverty Action Group commented “In the face of a projected 50 per cent increase in child poverty by 2020, this report should sound alarms.”

It is only possible to predict such a 50 per cent increase in child poverty because it will mainly be due to government policy decisions  –  which means that should the government choose to, it could prevent the increase happening. As Alison Garnham says, “the overall question the report raises for our prime minister is will she continue with the deep social security and public service cuts she inherited – to the detriment of our children’s health – or will she act to ensure that families have enough to live on so that all children get a good start?”

So far Mrs May seems quite willing to go ahead with those cuts. Indeed, there are worrying signs from both her words and actions that she is prepared to relegate the needs of the poorest in favour of the JAMs, the ‘just about managing’ families she has said she will prioritise – and who she has made clear are people not claiming social security benefits.  

In her speech on the ‘shared society’, Mrs May said she wants to help “those who have been ignored by Government for too long because they don't fall into the income bracket that makes them qualify for welfare support.” She believes “previous governments have focused too narrowly on the very poorest” and government now needs to move beyond a social justice agenda. It is quite extraordinary, but after six years of relentless cuts to welfare which have hit the poorest hardest, Mrs May seems to think that the poorest have actually been rather over-indulged, at the expense of their slightly better off neighbours.

So at a time when child poverty is rising and set to rise further due to government policy, the Prime Minister wants to shift focus from the poorest families, and appears to think we’ve had a bit too much talk of social justice. Perhaps this is why her government has abolished the Child Poverty Unit, and are continuing to insist that from April, women who have a third child will only be able to claim tax credits for that child if they can prove the child is the result of rape. How anyone ever thought that this was a humane policy is difficult to imagine. That they would persist with it against protests is disturbing.

Is Mrs May impervious to the moral arguments against policies that will increase child poverty, punishing children for the perceived sins of their parents? If so, perhaps she will be more open to the economic arguments, in this brave new buccaneering Brexit world.

Last month an article in The Lancet  persuasively argued that the view that spending on health and welfare is a burden on the productive economy is historically obsolete. The authors said,  “there should be an end to setting the goal of economic growth against that of welfare provision. A healthy and prospering society needs both. We suggest that they feed each other.”

This seems blindingly obvious. We can’t build a strong economy with a population that is becoming increasingly unhealthy due to poverty and inequality. When businesses call for more investment in infrastructure, they should remember that the most fundamental element of infrastructure is the population from which they draw their workforce and their customers. If the population is neglected and failing to thrive it will be more difficult for businesses to thrive.

Morally, child poverty is indefensible. Economically, it is wasteful and ultimately expensive. The Prime Minister needs to be aware that if she abandons the poorest children in order to nurture a more politically attractive demographic, there will be considerable costs and consequences down the line. Human costs, economic costs, and moral and spiritual costs.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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