Measuring child poverty

I have published a report with the other three children’s commissioners of the UK to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child on the state of children’s rights in the UK. We were last invited to report in 2008 so we have a lot to say.

We cover a wide range of issues in the report including mental health, access to justice, disability, child abuse, looked after children and the need to provide children with equal protection from assault. The underlying theme of the report is our desire to see all children and young people in the UK have an equal chance to play a full part in society and to lead safe, healthy and happy lives.

It was deeply disappointing therefore to have to report on the impact of austerity measures on children and their families. Welfare cuts have affected families with children more than any other group. Alongside this there have been cuts to many of the services children rely on to make their lives better like youth services, play and leisure facilities, libraries and out of school activities.

Child poverty figures have been too high for many years and there is a danger that we can get used to the idea and stop being shocked by it.

In recent years there has been a growing tendency to label people as being responsible for their poverty by being ‘lazy’ or spending their money on the wrong things. The UK Government has announced that it intends to stop measuring child poverty in relation to income and instead will use measures of worklessness, education, and behavioural issues like those used in the English Troubled Families programme.

This fails to acknowledge that the majority of children living in poverty have at least one parent who is working. Low pay, insecure hours and the costs of childcare, rent, heating and healthy food make life an everyday struggle for many families. Tax credits provide a crucial difference for thousands of families in low-paid employment. The UK, devolved and local governments should also be pushing more employers to pay a living wage.

Child poverty is caused by many factors but income and vital costs such as housing must be central to how we measure it. Raising income and making housing, heating and childcare affordable must be central to how we tackle it.

I agree with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation when they say that arguing about the measure doesn’t lead to actions to reduce poverty. Changing how we measure child poverty will not make fewer children feel the impact of poverty – cold and damp in under-heated houses in the winter or everyday anxiety about how their parents are going to pay for food and clothes. But changing the measure might make child poverty seem less of the national priority that it should be. The UK children’s commissioners will make sure that children’s real experiences of poverty are not forgotten, however the UK Government decides to measure it.

Read our children and young person’s summary of our UN report.