Recent research paints a grim picture of child poverty in the UK

David Kingman looks at several recent pieces of research which suggest that the UK is sliding backwards on children’s and young people’s living standards

November 2017 marked 75 years since the original publication of the economist William Beveridge’s ground-breaking report on Social Insurance and Allied Services in 1942, which laid the foundations for the modern welfare state. Using wonderfully evocative language, the report famously declared war on the five “giant evils” of Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness, which, Beveridge argued, it was the duty of the state and wider society to lead the fight against.

Unfortunately, despite the implementation of much of Beveridge’s agenda, these great social problems are clearly still a very marked feature of British society. Indeed, a number of groups of thinkers have taken advantage of this milestone anniversary to call for a renewed push to defeat the giant evils, such as the recent “Beveridge 2.0” conference at the London School of Economics (LSE). Largely by coincidence, several reports appeared during the month of November (or just shortly afterwards) which provided evidence that underlined quite how urgent the need for a renewed attack on social injustice has become, especially with regard to children and young people.

What does this new evidence tell us about the giant evils in contemporary Britain?

Rise in child poverty

One of the most striking pieces of recent evidence on this theme was the report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) called UK Poverty 2017. This much-publicised analysis of trends in contemporary poverty analysed the numbers of people belonging to different groups who have fallen into relative poverty – defined using the government’s official statistical threshold of 60% of median household income – over the past four years. This report received a lot of publicity because of its headline finding that the remarkable decline in poverty which had been witnessed in British society since the 1990s has gone into reverse, especially amongst children and pensioners. JRF found that since 2013 an additional 300,000 pensioners and 400,000 children have fallen below the respective poverty thresholds for these types of households.*

The increase in pensioner poverty is somewhat surprising given that pensioners have explicitly had their incomes protected by the “triple lock” throughout the era of government austerity, but JRF attributes it to the fact that Pension Credit – a means-tested top-up benefit which goes to the poorest pensioners – has not been uprated in line with inflation, hurting the most vulnerable members of this age group. The rise in child poverty has also been affected by the austerity agenda, as this has led to freezes in the value of in-work benefits and changes to tax credits which have hit low-income working families – freezes that have come on top of the general stagnation in workers’ wages since the 2008 financial crisis, along with rising housing costs in many parts of the country. JRF argue that there is one straightforward thing the government could do to counteract these trends: ending the benefits freeze. But that seems unlikely to happen in the current political climate.

Storing up problems for the future?

The picture which JRF painted of contemporary social injustice in the UK is bad enough, but the bleakness of its message was compounded by several other pieces of research on similar themes which also appeared around the month of November.

Firstly, the OECD brought out its global index of Child Wellbeing, which showed that children in the UK do relatively poorly compared to their contemporaries in other developed countries across a wide range of socio-economic and health indicators. The handy factsheet which they produce for the UK showed that, when scored against the 23 measures which they include in their index, children in the UK are only in the top third of countries for two of them: the frequency with which teenagers speak to their parents (a measure of the quality of young peoples’ family environment), and the proportion of adolescents who have access to books (a measure of education). Conversely, UK children fall into the bottom third of OECD countries for 11 of the 23 measures, including several which measure acute social problems, such as the proportion of children growing up in jobless households, the proportion of adolescents who regularly engage in exercise, the proportion who live in fear of violence in school, and the number of NEETs (Not in Education, Employment or Training). These findings are deeply concerning: while it may be unrealistic for any government to fully defeat the social problems which Beveridge identified, there is no great reason why the UK should be lagging behind other rich countries on so many of these problems.

The OECD also published their annual Pensions at a glance publication during November, a major comparison of issues relating to pensions and retirement across the OECD member states. This contained several stark warnings about how today’s workers are likely to fare when it is time for them to retire. The report projected that, because the UK state pension is relatively low by international standards, somebody who earns the national average income throughout their working life will only replace 29% of their previous income with the state pension when they retire – the lowest level of any OECD country (the average is 63%). In other words, private pension saving in the UK is a requirement for every young person who wants to have a decent quality of life when they can no longer work, but of course that depends on them having enough money now to start putting some aside for the future. The OECD also warned that the UK has very high rates of adult and pensioner obesity compared with other developed countries, which is significant because this is one of the main risk factors for severe health problems in old age. The fully universal state pension was a great achievement of Beveridge’s original agenda, but clearly a lot of work remains to be done to ensure that today’s workers will still be protected during their own retirement.

Finally, November also saw the publication of the government’s Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission’s latest report on the geographical distribution of life chances in England. This research highlighted that significant inequalities in life chances begin early in childhood and are very geographically variegated, with a growing gap between social mobility “hotspots” – which are mainly located in London and some other large cities – and “coldspots” of concentrated disadvantage, which are mainly found in rural and coastal areas. Most damningly of all, the entire Social Mobility Commission subsequently resigned in protest after they published their report, with its leader claiming there is a lack of political will to create a fairer society. 

Going backwards?

IF always aims to remain politically neutral; the purpose of this article was not really to criticise the current government for the effects of its policies towards children and young people, but to highlight the wealth of evidence which has recently appeared that suggests Britain is in a bad place when it comes to how we treat the next generation. Although 75 years may have passed since Beveridge, there is clearly an imminent danger that many of the massive gains which have been made in combating social injustice during that time could be lost for the next generation.

*Attempting to measure poverty is quite complicated, in part because different types of household need different levels of resources to achieve the same standard of living; i.e. a household that contains four children needs more income to afford the same standard of living as a couple who are childless. Therefore, different types of household have different poverty thresholds which are calculated by the government for statistical purposes: for a couple who live without children, the threshold is currently £248 per week, whereas a couple who live with two young children are considered to be in poverty if their income falls below £401.
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