CHILDREN REALLY DO LIVE IN POVERTY IN BRITAIN

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A week ago we launched a campaign to highlight the plight of the poorest children in Britain. The campaign, inspired by our new report – It Shouldn’t Happen Here – started a national conversation throughout the media and the public at large about child poverty in the UK. Here, our chief executive, Justin Forsyth, responds to some of the questions people have been asking.

Our UK campaign has sparked a national debate, with some newspaper columnists, think tanks and MPs questioning whether child poverty even existed in the UK and whether the charity was being too political. “Why charity shouldn’t begin at home” was the headline in Saturday’s Telegraph.

Let’s examine these claims: first and foremost that there is no problem here with childhood poverty.

According to the Government’s own statistics, last year there were 3.6 million children living in poverty in the UK after housing costs, despite our being the seventh richest country in the world. And it is projected to get worse.

The respected independent think-tank the Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that an extra 400,000 children will be pushed into poverty by 2015, and then another 400,000 by 2020.

But even if you question the internationally agreed measure of poverty behind these figures, you can’t deny that real and disturbing hardship is growing in our country.

Listen to the children

You just have to listen to the children themselves. Children told us that they were missing out a warm winter coat and new shoes when they needed them. A significant number of the poorest parents – one in eight – told us that their children were regularly going without a hot meal at home.

Their answers were backed up by our separate parents’ survey, in which a quarter of parents told us that they had skipped meals because of lack of money, and over half had cut back on food in the last year.

Against a backdrop of spiralling energy prices, low-income parents also talked about unpaid bills and debts piling up. Perhaps most upsetting, children talked anxiously of how aware they were of the emotional and financial strains that parents were facing, “When I ask for stuff, my mum tells me to go away, “ Esther, aged 14, told us. “I wish I could just get a load of money and give it to her.”

Save the Children not alone

Despite the headlines last week, we are far from the only organisation raising the alarm: the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Barnados, Citizens’ Advice, Gingerbread and the Children’s Society all have similar things to say.

A survey earlier this summer of nearly 600 teachers across Britain found four out of five teachers, seeing pupils who are hungry in the morning whilst the number of people using food banks run by the Trussel Trust – places where the poorest can get vital supplies to feed their families – has almost doubled in the last year.

Sceptics query whether the hardship seen here can properly be called poverty, given the extreme difficulties facing children in the developing world.

Of course in my visits to Save the Children’s work in some of the toughest parts of the world, things are much worse: children there are dying of hunger and preventable illnesses like diarrhoea and pneumonia.

This is appalling and with the generous support of the UK public, we reached 8.5 million children with life-saving aid last year.

Fulfilling potential

But Save the Children is about all children fulfilling their potential – not just surviving. Poverty at home may look different, but it also causes real suffering to children and sets back the life chances of far too many.

The solutions in our report are aimed at giving our poorest children the best chance possible. The popular caricature is that poor children come from broken families on benefits – in other words, the undeserving poor. But this is simply not true.

The majority of children in poverty have at least one parent in work. Their parents are often working long hours striving to give their children the chances they missed. That is why we agree with the Government that the best way out of poverty is to make work pay.

We have laid out a targeted plan to do just this – a plan that both tries to get more income into the hands of poor families and gives them the things they need to work, like affordable childcare.

Solutions to poverty

The political debate has polarised between those that focus on income and those that believe it is only about opportunity – but we believe that both are needed.

We want the Government to increase help for families on lowest incomes to make childcare affordable: far too often, parents want to work, but find the costs of securing childcare for their children outstrips the wages they would actually earn.

We also think that in the new welfare system – universal credit – poor working parents should keep more of their earnings before benefits are withdrawn, as they get on the first rung of the ladder to work their way out of poverty.

But the solutions don’t just lie with government. We also want employers to pay wages that are higher than the minimum wage and will help parents provide their children with the essentials. And we want energy companies to do more to ensure the lowest tariffs for the poorest families.

Not party political

These are urgent issue for all sides of the political spectrum to address.

Yes, as many commentators have pointed out, I used to work for two Labour Prime Ministers, but Save the Children’s work is never party-political and our campaign against UK child poverty predated my arrival as chief executive.

Our report should unite, not divide our political parties with a determination to do more to protect our poorest children in the UK.

At some point, we know our economy will emerge from recession – but our children only get one chance at childhood.

A version of this article has been published on the Daily Telegraph website

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