Posted: 27 February 2014

The government missed a chance to fight child poverty

The government unveiled its much-anticipated child poverty strategy today. The plan restates its commitment to end the scourge by 2020.

While they have made important strides, the government squandered an important opportunity to take concrete steps to tackle the child poverty, which blights the lives of 3.5 million children in the UK. 

The cost of child poverty to the country is significant – at least £25 billion a year. Poor health is also strongly linked to poverty. Children born into poverty are more likely to have low birth weights, miss school due to illness and suffer mental health problems.

A squandered opportunity

Some measures highlighted in the strategy, such as free childcare for disadvantaged two year-olds and an extension of free school meals to all infant school-aged children, are very welcome but they are not new.

Other measures mentioned by the government in this strategy, such as the benefit cap and the controversial 'bedroom tax', are likely to make things worse, not better, and will push more children below the breadline. 

Independent experts predict that 800,000 more children will be living in poverty by 2020. This doomsday scenario could, however, be avoided. 

Energy bills are pushing more families into poverty

Helping low income families with children meet the cost of rising energy bills should be included in any strategy to tackle child poverty. Five million families are likely to turn their heating down this winter because they simply can’t afford to pay sky high energy bills. And half of them are worried this will affect their children’s health. 

Our research shows that nearly two million children in poverty will miss out on the warm home discount this winter. The discount provides a £135 rebate on energy bills for disadvantaged families. It is a vital form of support for families with children who are struggling to keep their homes warm. The government should make sure all families with children in poverty automatically get this support, so no parent faces the agonising choice of heating their home or putting food on the table.  

The government must also give more support to working families who are facing stagnating wages, rising prices and cuts to benefits and tax credits.  

Universal credit's benefits are not universal

The government is helping higher income families who get Universal Credit to meet up to 85% of their childcare costs. But the government has decided not to extend the same level of support to the lowest income working families, who will only receive 70%.  

If the government is serious about making work pay, all families on Universal Credit – including those struggling on low wages – should, at the very least, get help to pay for 85% of their childcare costs.

While last year’s announcement to make free school meals available to all children in infant schools is positive, 500,000 children living in poverty over the age of seven will continue to miss out on what, for many, is their only chance to get a healthy, balanced meal.  The importance of making sure all children get a hot nutritious meal at school cannot be overstated. 

The government says it wants to end child poverty by 2020. It must back up its rhetoric with bold and meaningful policies to attack the root causes of child poverty, once and for all.