Child poverty, a national emergency

Little Village turned five this week, and to mark that milestone, we have been working with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation to look at the scale and depth of poverty for families with babies and very young children. We know that poverty during these early months and years is a distressing experience for children and parents alike. It can also have a long-lasting impact on children, stacking the odds against their ability to thrive in terms of educational outcomes, employment opportunities, and even life expectancy.

That’s why we wanted to dig into the statistics to look more closely at how families with young children are coping. We also conducted some qualitative research — designed with our Ambassador group of parents we’ve supported — to explore how these big abstract statistics translate into the everyday experience of raising small children on very low incomes.

You can read our full report here, or a summary of the findings here. The press release is here, and Newsnight covered the work today — I’ll post a link here to that report when that’s up.

“It was devastating not to be able to provide for my children in the way I’d envisaged, the way any mum might want to provide. To not be able to do the one thing you want to do and need to do is devastating for everyone really, the whole family.” — Mum of two year old twins

What we found

1.3 million babies and pre-school children are living in poverty today. Families with children under the age of 3 face the highest risk of poverty, and poverty has risen faster for these families than those with older kids over the last 10 years.

Families with young children are more likely to be living deeper in poverty. A quarter of babies and young children in poverty are living 50 per cent below the poverty line. In practice that means that children and their parents are facing severely restricted options — unacceptable dilemmas between heating and food, nappies and rent.

And for families with a child under 5, their risk of persistent poverty is higher than for families with older kids too. It is becoming harder to escape, trapping people in a life that’s shaped by daily challenges, a loss of hope and agency, and a sense of shame that can be hard to shake off.

I find these figures really hard to accept. There’s no other way to say it: this is not ok. All these children are in poverty in one of the wealthiest countries in the world — and all the indications are that the numbers will rise sharply in the coming years. We’re in danger of failing a generation of children. This is a national crisis unfolding, right in front of our eyes.

Covid has made a bad situation much, much worse.

Covid has made what was already a very difficult situation much much worse for the families we support. The pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on families in poverty with young children. Our analysis shows that 40 per cent of these families have seen a reduction of their earnings as a result of Covid. 7 in 10 families with children claiming Univeral Credit have had to cut back on essentials, and more than half are behind on rent and other essential bills.

Right now, in the midst of our third lockdown, families on low incomes are at rock bottom. Resilience was already in short supply and it is now non-existent. Options to stay afloat are dwindling: these are families who have exhausted any limited savings they had; they’ve used up favours from families and friends.

And yet the economic aftershock of the pandemic is only just beginning, even as (we hope) the public health crisis slowly begins to recede. The Office of Budget Responsibility predicts that unemployment will peak later this year and stay high till 2023. This will hit low-paid sectors like hospitality and retail very hard.

So far, families have been protected from the worst effects of these patterns by government schemes including the Jobs Retention Scheme and the temporary £20-a-week uplift in Universal Credit. Given the projections, I find it completely extraordinary that we’re even considering removing this temporary uplift. Doing so would mean out-of-work benefits return to just 15 per cent of average weekly earnings. It would guarantee that the families we support will face debt, evictions and hunger. This is state-sponsored poverty and we should fight it with everything we’ve got.

A failure of policy

Rising child poverty hasn’t just happened. It’s not an inevitable trend where all we can do is stand at the sidelines helplessly wringing our hands. We know this, because we’ve tackled it before. In the early 2000s, a combination of tax credits and wage improvements made a real difference. There is more we can do now, much more. A third of families with young children are in poverty as a result of a series of policy failures and the first step is to tackle these, urgently.

  • Poor quality and precarious jobs: we have failed to protect families at the bottom of the income distribution over the last decade. For low earners, wages have actually fallen. Jobs are more precarious as the gig economy has revolutionised the labour market with zero-hour contracts, short hour roles, and limited opportunities for progression. If you are in any doubt about the impact of these issues, remember that 70 per cent of children in poverty have at least one parent in work.
  • A safety net full of holes: the introduction of the temporary uplift to Universal Credit was itself an acknowledgement that pre-covid, benefits were not adequate to do their job of insuring us against hard times. A decade of austerity has fallen hardest on working-age families who are now paying the price of cruel, mean-spirited policies such as the benefits cap, the two-child limit and a 7 year benefits freeze.
  • Impossibly high housing costs: the provision of social housing has fallen sharply, with the private rented sector growing very fast to fill the void. Nearly half of families with young children in this sector have housing costs that are deemed ‘unaffordable’, and unsurprisingly it is these families who faced the highest rates of eviction in this sector. At Little Village we’re seeing a wave of ‘hidden homelessness’ as families are forced into temporary accommodation or sofa-surfing.

You don’t need a maths degree to see that low wages and punishingly low benefits simply do not add up to cover rising living costs, especially in places our major cities like London (where more than 4 in 10 children are already growing up in poverty).

I’ll leave the policy wonks to argue about how best to do it, but the bottom line is that we need to get more money into people’s pockets. That could be through better wages, more hours, higher quality jobs or addressing the inadequacy of the benefits system after a decade of cuts that have hit working families hard. It could be through tackling the cost of living, for example, housing and also transport and childcare costs, that are so high that they are locking people out of opportunities, and trapping them in poverty.

From where we stand at Little Village, action on any of these issues is better than the current situation. It’s time to stop nit-picking about how we measure child poverty, and to start building a coherent policy agenda that is designed to mitigate against rising inequality, rather than extending it.

A failure of imagination

I want to come back to the figures we uncovered in this report. 1.3 million babies and young children in poverty, part of a growing number of children whose lives are being diminished by lives on very low incomes. This is the reality we hear about every week at Little Village: babies living in single rooms with no space to learn to crawl and roll; toddlers unable to leave the house for a lack of a buggy, or a warm coat; pre-schoolers without books and toys to inspire their curiosity. Parents are ashamed and devastated that it’s proving so hard to give their children the start in life they deserve.

I see these findings as nothing less than a national crisis, and a massive failure of policy that is unquestionably casting a very long shadow over a generation of children and their parents.

But I also regard the situation we describe in the report as a failure of our collective imagination in recent years. As a nation, we’ve been too ready to accept the unhelpful polarising narratives that abound about poverty, without questioning them. We’ve stopped believing that things can be different. We’ve not been dreaming of a better future, or doing enough of the work required to make it possible.

On the bad days, this leaves me full of impotent rage (apologies if you’ve encountered this on Twitter). Rising poverty and inequality are the result of us faithfully chasing continuous economic growth over and above anything else: it is painfully obvious now that this pathway has not served us, or the planet, well. As the chasm gets ever wider between rich and poor, it’s not just wealth that has become concentrated at the top: agency, social capital and a sense of hope and possibility are also unfairly distributed. This relentless pursuit of growth, with no care for who gains, is tearing holes in our social fabric and is hurtling us towards catastrophic environmental destruction at an alarming speed.

But on the good days, I find myself clinging on with everything I’ve got to a glimmer of hope, and this glimmer has grown over the course of the last nine months. On these days, I wonder whether the pandemic is helping us to confront with fresh eyes the reality that our economic system is out of kilter with the things that really matter to us all. Perhaps it is this collective experience — where so many more of us are experiencing economic hardship, poor health and isolation as a result of the pandemic — that will wake us up to the need for a prosperity that’s more fairly shared, and that takes care of the planet for future generations.

Two examples of where this is showing up. First, we have been forced in this last year to reconsider what social and economic roles matter the most — the warehouse workers, nurses, home-based carers, bus drivers, the cashiers whose work is vital and yet deeply and systematically undervalued. We’ve seen and felt the importance of so many previously invisible, underpaid roles, at the same time as experiencing outrage at the large companies whose bosses line their pockets, while failing to feed children properly (thank you, thank you Marcus Rashford and Jack Monroe for everything you have done).

And second, we’ve also discovered the power, agency and pure joy that comes from helping one another: we’ve built new trust with our neighbours and we’ve been enormously grateful for receiving help in return when we’ve needed it. We’ve clapped for each other, donated to mutual aid groups, organised to ensure that our communities are not suffering alone.

These direct and visceral experiences of greater solidarity and of greater empathy may begin to expose the failures of our current economic system, as well as hinting at the potential of a different way of living together. Perhaps in the last year we’ve been sowing the seeds of a future that’s more equitable, more just, where the prosperity we have is more fairly shared.

Only time will tell whether this is the case. But we have to start with that dream, in order to determine just how important it is to take action now. I want today’s children to remember us for how we got behind them, not for how we failed them. I want them to know that we believe every parent wants the best for their child, and that every child deserves that start in life. That’s the future we’re working on at Little Village, in the face of enormous challenges. I invite you to do so too.

“If you can’t imagine it, you can’t have it” — toni morrison

We’ve supported 11,000 children since we launched in 2016, and demand for our support has doubled since the pandemic. We’re on track to support 6000 children across London this year. Please help us to continue this essential work — as well as doing all we can to build the pressure for action to tackle poverty — by donating here.

Founder and Chief Executive of Little Village. One of the Point People. CTI coach, mum of 3 and lifelong feminist. Dot-connector, question-asker, change maker.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store