Posted: 14 September 2016

Solving poverty – it’s no easy task

The new report ‘We can solve poverty’ by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) sets out a strategy for eradicating poverty in the UK which is an important step forward.

It seeks to put poverty back on the political radar. The aim of this strategy is to make sure that no one is ever destitute; that fewer than one in ten of the population are in poverty at any one time; and that nobody is in poverty for more than two years. Crucially it places the issue of income at the heart of the strategy. 

How did we get here?

The recent changes in the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016, which scrapped the targets to eradicate child poverty by 2020 set out in the Child Poverty Act 2010, were disappointing. While we welcome the Government’s commitment to continuing to measure income levels and exploring how other aspects of childhood affect their outcomes, it is essential that the very real impact of living on low income affects a range of children’s outcomes including education, health and mental health.

Through this and other legislation, the Government has continued to pursue policies which limit the benefits available to low income families, or carry the threat of punitive sanctions which can leave them needing to access hardship funds so that they aren’t left destitute.

From poverty to life chances

The ‘life chances’ rhetoric that has been emerging from Government over the course of the past year has sought to broaden the definition of what it is to be poor, looking at worklessness, debt, educational attainment and issues around addiction. However, the most recent government statistics show that two thirds (66%) of children in poverty currently live in a family where at least one parent is in work, meaning that moving parents into work doesn’t necessarily move children out of poverty. The Government needs to do more to make sure that families with children have an adequate income and are able to afford the essentials, such as properly fitting school uniforms, hot meals, and being able to heat the family home.

Children need to have a standard of living that meets all their welfare needs to learn, grow and develop – not only to survive but to thrive.

What our research tells us

Our recent review of the available research evidence has explored the impact of poverty on children’s mental health by looking at factors such as low income, debt and housing which all appear to have deleterious effects on children’s subjective well-being and mental health. This needs to be recognised within government policy and should be addressed within the forthcoming life chances strategy to make sure that children’s outcomes aren’t diminished as a direct result of government policy. Families shouldn’t have to access foodbanks to feed their children – more can be done to support them to find work that pays and make those jobs sustainable.

The almost inevitable consequence of this sort of perpetual low income is problem debt. We know from our research how damaging debt can be to children and parents alike. Our forthcoming research explores in more detail the negative impact of growing up in problem debt on the mental health and well-being of children.

One of the ways in which the Government could tackle the impact of debt on children and parents is through the introduction of a statutory ‘breathing space’ scheme, so that families have time to access specialist support and debt advice, and make a repayment plan that they can afford whilst still ensuring that their debt is repaid in full. A proposal for this scheme will be debated as part of a Private Members Bill sponsored by Kelly Tolhurst MP on 28 October 2016. The Children’s Society will be offering her our full support.

Carrying on the fight …

Like the JRF, we will continue to highlight the importance of income in tackling child poverty and improving children’s life chances. We see families in our services struggling every day, and we will continue to work tirelessly and passionately to improve the support that is available to them. 

By David Ayre - Policy team

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