The Observer view on child poverty: Labour must tackle this scourge as soon as possible | Observer editorial

Almost one in three British children now live in relative poverty. Former prime minister Gordon Brown last week referred to this generation as “austerity’s children”: children who have known nothing but what it is to grow up in families where money concerns are a constant toxic stress, where a lack of a financial cushion means one adverse event can trigger a downward debt spiral, and where parents have to make tough choices about essentials such as food and heating. Rising rates of child poverty are a product of political choices; that we have a government that has enabled them is a stain on our national conscience.

The headline rate of child poverty is underpinned by other alarming trends. Two-thirds of children living in relative poverty, defined as 60% of median income, after housing costs, are in families where at least one adult works, a product of the number of low-paid jobs in the economy that do not allow parents to adequately provide for their children. Unsurprisingly, child poverty rates are higher in families where someone has a disability, and 58% of children from Pakistani and 67% of Bangladeshi backgrounds live in relative child poverty. Child homelessness is at record levels – more than 140,000 children in England are homeless, many living for years on end in temporary accommodation that does not meet the most basic of standards. One in six children live in families experiencing food insecurity, and one in 40 in a family that has had to access a food bank in the past 30 days.

Child poverty levels have obviously been affected by factors such as the pandemic, the energy crisis and the rising cost of living. But there has been a concerted political decision to let them go up. First, consecutive Conservative chancellors have significantly reduced the amount of financial support targeted at low-income parents – the majority of whom are in low-paid work. Between 2010 and 2019, families with children in the poorest decile of income distribution lost a devastating amount as a result of changes to the tax-benefit system – a net average of £4,000 a year, or 20% of their income – as a result of real cuts to tax credits and benefits, the benefit cap and the two-child limit on means-tested financial support for children. Over the same period, affluent households in the top half of the income distribution gained financially as a result of tax cuts. George Osborne and Philip Hammond literally took money from poor families with children and redistributed it to richer families, in one of the most morally bankrupt set of decisions taken by the Conservatives in 2010, initially with Liberal Democrat support. Since 2019, Rishi Sunak, then Jeremy Hunt, have prioritised delivering expensive tax cuts that most benefit middle and high earners over addressing child poverty.

Successive governments have also failed to address the housing crisis that has left the UK with some of the highest rents in Europe and an under-regulated private rental sector marred by poor-quality housing and insecurity. They have failed to tackle the number of low-paid jobs in the economy; work often cannot function as the route out of poverty that Conservative politicians claim.

Britain is a wealthy society; no child should have to cope with going to school hungry, or with holes in their shoes, or living in cold and damp housing. And evidence shows that growing up in poverty blights a child’s life chances long after they reach adulthood, affecting everything from long-term health to employment outcomes: tolerating poverty bakes in a cycle of disadvantage that hurts generation after generation.

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It should not be left to a former prime minister – rather than the current generation of politicians – to sound the clarion call on this. Brown is right that urgent action is required immediately, first by this government, and then by Labour if it wins the general election. The most urgent priority is redirecting the cash earmarked by Jeremy Hunt for future tax cuts the country can ill afford towards restoring financial support for low-income parents to 2010 levels in real terms: not just scrapping the two-child limit and the benefits cap but also increasing the generosity of benefits and tax credits overall. How could it possibly be justifiable to spend £65bn on cutting national insurance over the next five years rather than targeting support to children in poverty?

There also needs to be reform of the private rental sector and much more investment in services that can help close the widening education and health gaps between poor children and their more affluent peers: the hugely successful Sure Start scheme that was cut back by the Conservatives, child mental health services and children’s social care, to name a few.

Addressing child poverty was a notable absence on the pledge card Labour leader Keir Starmer launched last week. There is no mention of poverty in Labour’s mission to break down barriers to opportunity. Starmer is treading an understandably cautious line in terms of Labour’s tax and spending plans in the run-up to the election. But this is holding the party back from talking openly about one of the big moral questions of our time while it is in opposition. Ending child poverty was one of the driving ambitions of the last Labour government. It must not be anything less for the next one.


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