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Chancellor Must Take Action on Child Poverty

There are 500,000 more children in poverty in the UK today than there were in 2010, and another million are likely to be added by the early 2020s taking the total to over 5 million. It feels like a lifetime ago that all the UK’s political parties came together and promised to end child poverty by 2020. Not only is the number of children in poverty rising, but their families are seeing their incomes dragged further and further below the poverty line.

This is happening in large part because close to £40 billion a year has been taken out of benefits and tax credits for low-income families, while earnings have barely risen in comparison. Working families are increasingly being swept up with the tide, with two-thirds of children in poverty now in a family where someone works.  

This is nothing short of a crisis, and at any other time it would be front page news. Poverty damages children’s life chances, holding back their education and raising their risk of physical and mental ill-health. As a society this costs us dearly in missed potential and the extra costs of support. And for children, I can’t put it better than the paediatrician who told us that it steals away a bit of their childhood. Children should be learning, playing and developing; instead far too many are worrying about money, worrying about the stress they see their parents dealing with, and missing out on activities their peers can afford.

A few years ago I gave evidence to a parliamentary group about the likely effect of planned cuts to benefits and tax credits on children’s health. Everyone could foresee the damage which would be done, and one of the academics giving evidence alongside me, who has dedicated years to understanding the relationship between family income and children’s outcomes, warned that the cuts would have devastating consequences. When asked whether experts could monitor the impact as the cuts hit home, she said that of course researchers would monitor it, but for children growing up this decade that wouldn’t do them any good. They only get one chance at a childhood.  Those words have stuck with me and remind me that every one of the 4.1 million children in poverty are babies, toddlers, children and teenagers who aren’t getting the childhood they deserve.

Worse, it is all completely needless. The burden of austerity did not have to be placed on the shoulders of our country’s low income families; politicians made the choice to slash family benefits, while introducing tax cuts which overwhelmingly benefited the better off and dressing them up as an anti-poverty measure.

This cannot go on. With 2020 around the corner, it’s time to make a new commitment to children and start tackling poverty instead of allowing more and more families to be dragged under.  There is a lot one could say about what a new child poverty strategy might look like, but two simple policy changes would make a huge difference and could be brought in straight away. First, ending the freeze on benefits immediately. Inflation has been much higher than was expected when the freeze was introduced three years ago, meaning that the cut to families’ real incomes has been much greater than ever intended. The freeze on children’s benefits alone is putting 200,000 children into poverty, while the freeze on housing support leaves people unable to pay the rent and often with nowhere cheaper to go. There is no justification for allowing it to run on another year.

Second, we need to abolish the ‘two-child limit’ and arbitrary benefit cap in tax credits and universal credit. In a wealthy country we don’t need to deny some children support just because they already have two siblings and their parents are struggling to make ends meet, or leave single parents with babies and toddlers unable to pay the rent, as these policies are doing. The two-child limit also discourages single parents from re-partnering into blended families, and charities have warned that it is driving women to consider abortions of wanted pregnancies. That isn’t a compassionate society.

We know that with the right policies child poverty can be brought down. We have done it before, and children’s lives got better in measurable ways as a result. It’s time to stop watching the child poverty figures ticking up, and start taking action.

Josie Tucker is Head of Policy and Research at the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG)