By Rachel Wilson, Political Reporter

Born Unequal

In a rich country such as the UK, there should be certain minimum standards below which no one should fall.

In 2010, for the first time ever, the government set itself the target to end childhood poverty for good. Households Below Average Income (HBAI) is the definitive national measure of relative child poverty as set out in the Child Poverty Act 2010 and is based on an annual Family Resources Survey.

According to the latest figures, 17% of children (2.3 million) live in households in the UK with incomes below 60% of median household income Before Housing Costs (BHC), and 27% (3.5 million) After Housing Costs (AHC). The preferred measure of low income for children is based on incomes measured BHC, as AHC measures can underestimate the true standard of living for families who choose to spend more on housing.

Average income in 2011/12 was £427 per week (BHC). This means that the threshold to determine if a child is living in a household of relative low income, 60 per cent of average income, is £256 per week.

In March 2010 the Child Poverty Act was passed, which legally binds the government to a commitment to eradicate child poverty in the UK by 2020.

However, a recent report by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, chaired by Alan Milburn, predicts that “the UK is not on track to meet the statutory goal of ending child poverty by 2020. The best projections we have suggest that the target will be missed by a considerable margin, perhaps by as many as 2 million children in relative poverty.”

Being born, and growing up, in poverty blights young lives. There are higher rates of ill health among poorer children, due to factors such as living in cold, damp, over-crowded housing. Infants in the poorest families have an almost ten times higher chance of dying suddenly in infancy than those in the highest income group. Being poor as a kid brings with it the stigma of not having the right clothes, not being able to afford school trips or holidays, and not being able to afford to invite friends round for tea.

The Family Resources Survey includes questions on material deprivation, which asks whether families are able to afford to buy essential items or services, or to participate in leisure or social activities. Such questions include: “Does your child/ do your children have a warm winter coat? Does your child/ do your children attend at least one regular organised activity a week outside school?”.

As poor children go through the school system many are bullied, which leads to school absences, lower grades and low self esteem. It is well documented that children who are eligible for Free School Meals achieve significantly lower grades at GCSE than their richer peers. Many more are too ashamed to claim the free meals they are entitled to. A downward cycle is set in motion from a young age, and it is a remarkable child who can break through the barriers of poverty and shine.

A recent report from The Children’s Commission on Poverty quotes children who live in poverty. In their own words: ”I can’t buy clothes, I am using a USB cable coz I don’t have a belt and I cant buy one”; I want to go on holiday because I’ve never been, I’d like to see what’s there”; ”They say they are free schools, but they are not really, you have to buy all the right things”; “If my trousers are too short then people notice and call it ankle biters, I feel self-conscious then”.

Children are paying the price, and suffering the consequences of poverty, as the Children’s Commission on Poverty’s report notes: “To be poor in an essentially wealthy society is a very particular and stigmatising experience, and children are well aware of this”.

The Government launched a consultation in 2012 on a new national measurement of child poverty. The consultation proposes that, as well as income, the new multidimensional measure should include whether a child lives in a family with debt problems, lives in poor housing or a troubled area, lives in an unstable family environment, attends a failing school, has parents without the skills they need to get on or has parents who are in poor health.

It has been widely criticised as confusing a measure of poverty with potential causes and conditions of poverty. The Child Poverty Unit, which is the government body responsible for developing the new measurement, has yet to publish its final response.

The direction of future government policy will determine whether we end child poverty through tackling the causes of poverty (the most important measure of which is income) or instead to blame the poor, and by extension poor children, for the situation they find themselves in.

As David Laws admits, at the beginning of the Government’s consultation: “Income – or rather the lack of a decent income – is and will always be at the heart of what it means to be poor “.

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