ONE IN three of Britain's 12 million children live in poverty, a figure that has hardly changed since New Labour came to office. That stark figure brings home how little all the government's initiatives, and its babble about 'social inclusion', have achieved. A wide-ranging survey, commissioned by Save the Children and carried out by researchers at the University of York, has just been released.
Almost every page is a condemnation of a society where a few live in luxury while millions worry about feeding their children properly. There is a huge debate over how many children live in poverty in Britain, and whether the number has fallen significantly since New Labour came to office. Ministers claimed this week that government policies have lifted over one million children out of poverty. Some studies can be manipulated to back up this figure.
It would be remarkable if some children had not been shifted over the poverty line. When New Labour won the 1997 election many children were only just below the official cut-off point. A few extra pounds in child benefit or Working Families Tax Credit led to 'the abolition of poverty', even though these children may still suffer real hardship.
But it is scandalous how little New Labour has achieved. The figures show:
- In 1997, 17.9 percent of children lived in households where nobody had a job. The figure is still 15.3 percent, despite an overall fall in unemployment.
- In 1996-7, 34 percent of children lived in poverty, according to one of the most consistently used definitions of poverty. On that same indicator today 31 percent of children live in poverty.
Many of the inflated claims about poverty reduction are based on a con. They compare today's figures with what 'would have happened' if the Tories had stayed in power.
New Labour hopes that saying things would be worse had the Tories stayed will mask how little things have improved since Tony Blair became prime minister. Child poverty reflects adult poverty. Children are poor because their parent or parents are poor. Over half the children in poverty have parents who work, which reflects how low wages are for many in Britain.
- Children of unskilled manual workers are twice as likely to have serious illnesses as the children of barristers.
- Children in the lowest social class category are 16 times more likely to be killed by fire or flames than those in the richest group.
Poverty is often portrayed as largely confined to the north of England, Wales and Scotland, while the south of England is pictured as prosperous. The report demolishes that idea. Even before housing costs are taken into account, London has a higher proportion of children in poverty than the north west of England and Merseyside, or Yorkshire and the Humber.
After housing costs are considered, London has by far the highest percentage of children in poverty of any part of England - 41 percent. This is the same figure as for Wales. There are vast pools of poverty in every part of Britain -and islands of extraordinary wealth.
The Whitfield South ward in Dundee has an almost incredible 96.1 percent of children living in poverty. Elsewhere in Scotland, the Kilmardinny ward in East Dumbartonshire has less than 1 percent of children in poverty. In Wales the Townhill ward of Swansea has 81.2 percent of children in poverty. Nearby in Killay North there are only 3.3 percent of children in poverty.
East London's Tower Hamlets is a perfect illustration of how destitution lives cheek by jowl with opulence. The borough has the highest percentage of children living in poverty in England, 73.5 percent. At the same time it has the second highest average full time earnings in Britain, second only to the City of London.
Half the households in Tower Hamlets are entirely dependent on state benefits. Yet the average wage is over £740 a week. A small group of executives, consultants and managers grasp salaries of £100,000 or more a year. All around them are people fighting to survive. This is the 'dynamic', 'entrepreneurial', 'business friendly' Britain that New Labour has created.
Housing a scandal
'CHILDREN ARE travelling for hours to and from school, and returning exhausted to a flea-ridden bed shared with three siblings. It's like something from the 19th century.'
This was an angry comment by Ben Jackson from the housing charity Shelter accompanying the organisation's recent report on children and homelessness. It showed that around 100,000 children were homeless last year, causing educational and behavioural problems, and sickness.
The study found that children in two fifths of the families affected were forced to move schools when they became homeless. Their health also suffered from insanitary conditions, overcrowding, and a poor diet due to lack of cooking facilities.
The food gap
'THE DIET and nutrition intake of British school children have failed to improve over the past two decades,' says the Save the Children report. It also finds that 'benefit levels are too low to afford a healthy diet. Many people on low incomes simply do not have enough money or other resources to be able to eat a healthy, balanced diet.
In 1998 a family of two parents and two children received £121.75 in income support and needed £160.80 for a low cost but acceptable standard of living, leaving a weekly shortfall of £40. Changes in the benefit regime have slightly closed this gap. But there is still a deficit of around £28 a week.
Class kills on roads
CHILDREN FROM Britain's most deprived neighbourhoods are four times more likely to be knocked down by cars, according to the Institute for Public Policy Research. In a study to be published next month, the IPPR says 8,000 children were killed or injured on the roads in Britain's poorest 10 percent of council wards during 1999 and 2000. That compares to just 1,000 casualties in the richest wards.
Among the areas where casualties were highest are Small Heath and Sparkhill in Birmingham, and Middlesbrough's Easterside estate. Overall, poor wards had 2.2 casualties per 100,000 children compared to 0.6 in rich areas. The congestion charging planned in London will make the situation worse, with more cars crammed into the areas on the edge of the charging zone. These tend to be the poorer parts of the city.
Motoring organisations predictably reacted unfavourably to the report, which called for a 20mph limit in built-up areas. A spokesman for the RAC (now owned by the giant Lex motor company) said, 'Twenty miles per hour is, in reality, quite slow. If you enforced it by speed bumps, people who were concerned about road safety would just become more worried about noise and pollution.'
Racism a reality
THE SAVE the Children report shows that vast pools of poverty blight the lives of children across Britain. The figures show that one in four of children in white households, which still form the overwhelming majority in Britain, live in poverty.
They also show the effects of racism, and explode the myth that non-white people get 'preferential' treatment.
Ethnic groups and percentage of children living in a household of each type who are poor
Black Caribbean 37%
Black African 55%
The Wellbeing of Children in the UK, edited by Jonathan Bradshaw, is published by Save the Children, price £18.50.