In a 1999 speech Tony Blair declared, “Our historic aim will be for ours to be the first generation to end child poverty forever, and it will take a generation. It is a 20 year mission, but I believe it can be done.”
To a standing ovation and with tears in the eyes of his supporters, Blair said, “The child born in the run down estate should have the same chance to be healthy and well educated as the child born in the leafy suburbs.”
Why then, despite all the rhetoric and good intention, was the government forced to admit last week that it was failing in its pledge to end child poverty?
Its own figures showed that child poverty had increased for the first time in six years while overall poverty had risen for the first time under this government.
The number of children living in poverty increased by 100,000 to a total of 3.8 million.
Martin Narey, chair of the Campaign to End Child Poverty, said, “In a country as wealthy as ours it is a scandal that the number of children still growing up in poverty has increased – poverty which blights their life chances, poverty which for many is simply overwhelming.”
The effects of poverty are devastating and far reaching. Children from low income families are more likely to live in a poor environment, in poor quality housing and in greater proximity to crime and drugs.
Low income has an affect on educational achievements which in turn can lead to a cycle of disadvantage into adult life. Poverty and deprivation limits choice which in turn affects self esteem, confidence, and health.
So what is the government’s solution to tackling child poverty?
Gordon Brown stated last week, “The key to the future is how many people you can get into work. That’s the bigger contribution to tackling child poverty.”
Welfare reform minister Jim Murphy said the government must encourage the unemployed to think, “Work first, benefits second.”
Getting people back into work and off benefits has become the mantra of the Blair government.
Lone parents are now obliged to take part in work focused interviews every six months. The government also plans to force lone parents to “actively seek work” once their youngest child reaches the age of 12.
Those claiming incapacity benefit have also been targeted, with Blair stating that everyone is expected to “fulfil their responsibilities” to work if able to do so.
Incapacity benefit claimants have to undergo medicals as often as every 12 months to assess their capability for work.
If the medical defines someone as fit for work their benefits are stopped immediately.
The idea that there exists real choice for people to work their way out of poverty is simply not true and is an insult to families forced to live on benefits.
People do not choose to live in poverty, but are often trapped by low pay, working patterns that are too inflexible to match parenting responsibilities, disability, illness or discrimination.
For others work has proved to be a precarious and ineffective route out of poverty. Over half of poor children – 54 percent – have a parent in work.
Kate Green, Child Poverty Action Group’s chief executive, points out, “Britain has one of the highest employment rates in Europe, yet one of the worst child poverty rates.
“Access to better jobs can help reduce child poverty, but today’s figures for children in working families suggest that simply resorting to getting more parents into work is not good enough.”
The Joseph Rowntree Foundation estimates that in order to halve child poverty by 2010 the government needs to make an annual investment of £4.3 billion.
It needs to ensure that benefit safety nets are set above poverty levels and investment goes into providing better jobs, training and education.
In addition it needs to reverse spending cuts in the civil service to ensure that the delivery of benefits is not affected by job cuts and limited services.
While New Labour talks about its great desire to end child poverty it prepares to spend £76 billion on replacing Trident nuclear missile system.
Blair and Brown’s priorities lie with big business, privatisation and war.
The reality for 3.8 million children living in poverty in Britain today is that New Labour doesn’t offer any hope for the future.
Rachel Boyes is a welfare rights adviser working in North Yorkshire