New Labour’s campaign for the hearts and minds of young people in Britain was dealt a heavy blow last week with the publication of a United Nations report on child poverty.
Unicef’s report damned Tony Blair’s Britain into 21st and last place in a league table of the wellbeing of children in the world’s richest countries.
The report identified children in Britain as poorer, at greater risk and more insecure than in most other wealthy nations.
This was despite significant omissions from the statistics, including no comparison of the levels of violence in the home which would, on the basis of other research, have shown Britain to be even worse.
Yet government ministers, officially pledged to a policy that Every Child Matters, immediately dismissed this report as out-of-date and inaccurate.
The media was similarly highly selective. They overlooked the evidence that, internationally, the more a government spends on family and social benefits, the lower child poverty rates are in that country.
For example, every country that spends more than 10 percent of gross domestic product (GDP – the wealth created each year) on social welfare has a child poverty rate of less than 10 percent.
Countries spending less than 5 percent of GDP on welfare have a child poverty rate of at least 15 percent.
The British government spends just over 2 percent of GDP (less than is spent on the military) on benefits for families with children. That includes all income support, working tax credits and housing benefit.
As a result, at least 17 percent of our children (that’s more than two million under 16 year olds) officially live in poverty, while millions more live close to the breadline.
In all the wealthy countries there is a trend towards lower relative earning for the lowest paid, but Britain has the lowest wage levels in western Europe. More than one in three of our 15 year olds expect to enter low paid employment and feel bad, if not hopeless, about their prospects.
New Labour’s answer to eradicating poverty is to cut welfare benefits and services, forcing single parents and the poor into low-paid work while blaming them for neglecting those of their children who lash out against degradation and despair.
But Unicef found there is little relationship between levels of employment and levels of child poverty. Income is the main factor.
Colette Marshall, chair of Save the Children, rightly called for drastic action to end child poverty, with an immediate essential cash injection of £4.5 billion into benefits, not further cutbacks.
In response, aides to chancellor Gordon Brown highlighted the recent investment in Sure Start children’s projects and plans for a children’s centre in every community by 2010.
Yet no additional government funding has been put into the current second phase of these centres, resulting in higher charges for community childcare places and cutbacks in the new services that are barely established.
The funding of the first phase of Sure Start provision was paid for by draconian and devastating cuts to the social services run by local councils, leaving child protection and family support services in perpetual cash crisis.
The new orthodoxy is for self reliance of the wholly privatised family.
New Labour has increased the privatisation of education and leisure facilities, and rationed support services to the most vulnerable.
At the same time it has announced an “extended schools” programme that will have some children kept in school between 8am and 6pm to allow parents to work longer hours, looked after by a low-paid or volunteer workforce.
As the Unicef report proves, poverty influences every element of a child’s life, but is not the only indicator of well-being.
The report also asks whether our children perceive themselves as loved, cherished, special and supported. The evidence starkly suggests they don’t.
Britain is an extremely polarised and unequal society with little or no shared experience between the children of well-off families and the poor.
Where there are few social opportunities and resources, the picture is of alienation, loneliness, forced competition and fear of the future.
At the other end of the scale, institutional respect and a commitment to children’s rights offers children in northern Europe and Scandinavia a much better quality of life.
But Denmark, Sweden and Holland are now experiencing the same political trends towards neoliberal attacks on public services and welfare benefits.
The problem is capitalist free market economics, the return to the economics and social structures of Victorian capitalism where the “deserving poor” received minimal support and those labelled undeserving were criminalised.
Solving that problem will require a collective challenge to these policies – and the full involvement of our young people in the fight for a better world.
Tony Staunton is a registered children’s social worker in Plymouth.