Saturday, 14 January 2012
Child Poverty And Child Benefit
According to Children's Minister Sarah Teather, there are still 2.8 million children living in poverty in the UK.
Child poverty in the UK is defined as 'household income below 60% of median income'. The median is the average of British income. I find it shallow that child poverty is assessed only in financial terms as physical and emotional development is equally important to all.
In the 1950s a widely publicised report from Joseph Rowntree, based on surveys in York, claimed that less than 5% of working class households were in poverty (although that figure was later questioned). Being a child of 50s I saw far more poverty then that I see today. It wasn't unusual for children to have only one pair of shoes and hand-me-downs for play and school wear and I can't recall any child intimidating another purely because of their clothing. We were more or less all in the same boat.
Family values were somewhat different then. Few households had money to spend on 'luxuries' such as new furnishings and anyone who was wealthy enough to buy new furniture from a sale room was fleetingly envied. Anything new, from a saucepan to a pair of shoes, was treasured by the owner. Money worries occurred in many families and 'treats' were few and far between. My family treat was a bottle of American Soda and one scoop of ice cream which my father bought on the first Sunday evening of every month. We would make 'ice drinks' with the ingredients and go to bed feeling extremely lucky.
There was no Pill in those days and I was aware of women, including my own mother, rallying round when another baby arrived in the street. A pram, cot and clothing were often supplied by other mothers on a loan basis.
Fathers usually had jobs in those days. Mothers stayed at home to look after the house and children, although my own mother decided she wanted to work and did so in 1952. I was a latch-key child cared for after school by friends' mothers until I was old enough to reach the door lock and let myself in, or my brother appeared.
Along came the Family Allowance, a 5 shilling (25p) a week payment given to parents - usually in the mother's name - only for their second and subsequent children. Its introduction was intended to prevent families being financially penalised for having children at a time when there were concerns that the birth rate had to be restored.
Now second-hand clothing is fashionable to a degree although most sale rooms have closed. The UK enjoys - in straight cash terms - some of the most generous child benefits in the world, with payouts more than twice the rate of France. Of the major Europeans economies only Germany pays more and includes extra payouts for parents who are out of work.
From next year child benefit is to be stopped for higher taxpayers and there is little argument about it. Those who earn less than £44,000 a year consider it fair. What it does do is make the child benefit no longer universal.
However the question was - does child benefit help lift a child out of poverty? It may not do as much as we like to think. In 2010 Frank Field was asked to investigate the benefit and came up with the idea of cutting it off once a child hits 13 and/or taxing it. His proposals were rejected by those, like Yvette Cooper, who said "All families need support as their children grow". But do they require or should they expect the help via the state?
Child poverty can only be reduced by parents taking responsibility for their children. The introduction of Sure Start centres in England was one of the few Labour successes, but owing to 'budget cuts', councils have begun to reduce their numbers.
Not every family needs official help with bringing up their children, but as a social democracy, we need to ensure that those children in need do not slip through the many child support charities and quangos, which are in constant need of more funding. Scotland is still dragging its heels since the government's Early Years Framework was published in 2008, although the introduction of a Minister for Children and Young People has brought the issue to the fore.
There is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow nor a bottomless pit overflowing with fifty pound notes to pay for these services. Frank Field may have been on the right track suggesting child benefit should be stopped earlier. Would curtailing it at 16 and reinvesting the savings into early year care, affect those 16+ year olds from continuing in formal education?
Somehow the poverty-benefit trap has to be broken and the only way is to nurture the physical and emotional wellbeing of our children.