Why are Welsh children so in need?

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Almost one in three children in Wales lives in poverty, the highest proportion of any country in the United Kingdom.  Why is this?

A recent report also highlighted deep wealth inequalities within Wales.  In Trevethin in Pontypool, an astonishing 75% of children under 4 are living in poverty, compared to 11% in nearby Panteg. Why is this?

As our two eldest headed off to school in fancy dress on Friday to raise money for Children in Need, it seemed timely to reflect on the underlying causes of child poverty in Wales and the rest of the UK. To ask some of the questions that the appeal and its commentary on the BBC does not necessary always invite us to ask. Uncomfortable but essential questions.

Children in Need supports a great many charities across the UK to carry out essential work. Charities like Whizz Kids, Llamau and Bobarth Children’s Centres. An example local to me, Pedal Power, receives funding from Children in Need that enables young people with physical and learning disabilities to experience the benefits of cycling using specially adapted bikes and tricycles.

In one Children in Need film, James McAvoy talks to camera on the topic of child poverty. He begins with the very moving story of an individual family’s experience, and goes on to say:

3.9 million children are living in poverty in the UK.  Its not their fault that they find themselves in this situation.  Every year, Buttel UK receives thousands of applications for emergency help, and the simple fact is that they cannot afford to fund all of them. That’s where you come in.

I would agree it isn’t the fault of these 3.9 million children.  Which begs the question, whose fault is it?

The BBC certainly isn’t asking this question.

Now I don’t blame the Children in Need appeal for shirking the politics of poverty. Politics isn’t sexy, and encouraging people to unpack the causes of poverty on a macro level, as opposed to focusing on individuals, is unlikely to leave the public feeling inclined to put their hand in their pocket.  I get that.

Of course we should continue to support Children in Need, and other similar causes, because they do great work for children who otherwise would not get help. But once we’ve dressed up /done a fun run /cycled the length of Wales /sat in a bath of baked beans, let’s pause to reflect.  Let’s talk about why there are so many children living in poverty, and why a higher proportion of them live in Wales.  Not poverty caused by a debilitating accident or other tragedy.  Not those whose lives are turned upside down by a rare childhood disease.  But the 29% of children across the UK who are living in poverty, for no reason out of the ordinary. And the 31% of children in Wales.  Whose fault is that?

In 1999 the UK Government made a commitment to halve child poverty by 2010 and eliminate it by 2020. The Child Poverty Act was passed in 2010, but scrapped by the Westminster Tory Government in 2015 and replaced by the Welfare Reform and Work Bill.

So, a little over three years to go before 2020, how are we doing on tackling child poverty? The proportion of children living in poverty had been falling.  Key indicators in Wales were improving as of 2009, things such as the proportion of children living in workless households, and the incidence of in-work poverty.  But child poverty has since been on the increase. According to research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, child poverty has plateaued since 2011, and in 2013 began to rise.

The causes of child poverty are complicated, but the consequences are well understood:

Children who grow up in low-income households have poorer mental and physical health, on average, than those who grow up in better-off families…. From an early age, children in poverty are more likely to score worse in tests of cognitive, social and behavioural development. ….. Living in a low-income family greatly increases the likelihood of children leaving school with lower educational attainment.

Extract from JRF ‘We can Solve Poverty’

In Wales, the Government has also made a commitment to eradicate poverty by 2020, but acknowledges in their latest strategy that progress has been poor.

review of Wales’ Child Poverty Strategy in July 2014 found that:

Wales has a higher proportion of children living in poverty than England, Scotland or Northern Ireland, and a higher proportion than any English region outside of London. Wales also has a high proportion of children in workless households – again, much higher than Scotland and most of England. (My emphasis).

So why is this?

I don’t have the answers, but I have a shed load of questions.

For a start, let’s unpack the Welfare Reform and Work Bill.  This is the piece of legislation you’ll remember that brought us the bedroom tax and benefit sanctions.

The charity Gingerbread supports single parents. They provide advice on their website for parents who have received a benefit sanction (a withdrawal of Job Seekers allowance for either 4 or 13 weeks as a punishment for breaking the rules – the length of the withdrawal depends on the rule you have broken).

So one of my questions is this.   What kind of society do we live in?

And what kind of society do we want to live in?

Not this one.  Not one that punishes families struggling to make ends meet, because they have failed to comply with the red tape, or because they missed an appointment at the Job Centre for unavoidable reasons. Examples such as this are well documented.

Welfare and benefit policy in Wales is not devolved. We have no influence over these policies and the cruel, dehumanising impact they have on some of the poorest, most vulnerable people in our communities.

We can tinker around the edges in other policy areas, like education and health, which are devolved.  But child poverty figures show that this isn’t working.  It isn’t enough.

In a report by Children in Wales (the national umbrella organisation for voluntary, statutory and professional organisations and individuals who work with children, young people and families in Wales), changes to benefits / benefit sanctions, and the bedroom tax are reported in the top eight poverty related issues.  Others include lack of access to affordable housing, food poverty, debt and rising living costs.

So some of this is already within our gift to improve – housing for example, is devolved to Wales. As with all areas where we are failing children and other vulnerable members of society, we should be holding the Welsh Government to account and demanding better.

But many of the policy decisions that are turning the screw on the poor in Wales, pushing an unacceptably large proportion of our Nation’s children further and further into poverty, are being dictated to us by Westminster.  We have no control.

Some of the issues identified by the Children in Wales report are systemic, but again are influenced by factors outside of Wales’ control.  Why are so many families in Wales experiencing food poverty?  There are now 157 food banks in Wales compared to 16 between 1998 and 2010.

One hundred and fifty seven.

The rise in food banks has been greatly hastened by welfare reform measures and austerity policies, particularly since the introduction of the Welfare Reform Act 2012

Dr Hefin Gwilym, Bangor University

Wales has not chosen austerity and regressive welfare reform.  These policies have been foisted upon us, by a Conservative Government that the majority of the Welsh population did not vote for (only 27% of those who voted in Wales chose the Conservatives in the 2015 general election).

And to be clear, austerity isn’t saving anyone any money; the UK National Debt has gone up under the Conservatives.  Austerity is a lifestyle choice. A choice made by the rich that affects the lifestyle of the poor. It’s a ‘screw the poor to keep them quiet’ kind of a policy, because the busier people are trying to feed their children or choosing between heating and new school shoes, the less chance they have to organise a class rebellion against the 1% in their spare time.  And the more squeezed the middle class are the more likely they are to blame the poor (conveniently written off as lazy by the Welfare Reform and Work Bill) and not the 1% who are creaming off the riches and busily offshoring them.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Wales has any more right to be pissed about the current state of affairs than any other part of the UK, or that Welsh people are the only ones that didn’t vote for this.  But we have more options available to us than people in England (amongst whom I count a great number of my friends and family).

We have the option to say:

Enough is enough.

We can draw a line in the sand and say:

This much and no more.

Our part in this ‘Union’ has gone on long enough, and our people, our communities, our children, are no better off.  We are still lagging behind.  Our being part of the United Kingdom is not helping us reduce child poverty, it is making things worse.  The power that Westminster has to determine our macro economic outcomes, to limit our potential as a Nation and to generally keep us down, has gone on long enough.  We must start to ask questions.

Why, when a third of our children are living in poverty, are we not, collectively asking questions such as:

How might an independent Wales deliver a better outcome for our children?

How could we distribute wealth more effectively in an independent Wales?

How would we design a welfare system that was humane, valued people as individuals, and was fit for the changing future of work, if we had the power to do so as an independent Nation?

There are so many questions we could ask and are morally obligated, in my opinion, to be asking.

Are we dependent on the rest of the United Kingdom because we are poor, or are we poor because we are dependent? Because we are not, yet, independent?

Wales’ children are poor because we haven’t the powers in Wales to do anything about it. Shouldn’t we be talking about this? Shouldn’t we ask the question ‘how might we tackle child poverty differently if Wales were an independent country, empowered to make policy decisions in the interests of its own citizens?’

We weren’t doing any better before austerity either. Cast your mind back to the last major redesign of the UK economy under Thatcher, when industrial communities in Wales and across the UK were decimated in favour of a move towards a finance dominated economy based in London.  How’s that one been working our for us in Wales?

Half of households living in poverty in Wales are in work.  Is this an economy that is functioning well? Where 23% of households are in poverty, and a full half of those are in work? Is this a model of work that is delivering good outcomes for Wales? We must take a good hard look at why we are failing to lift people out of poverty.  Why such a high proportion of jobs in Wales are low paid, low skilled, or precarious.  We can tinker, but until we have all the levers of power at our disposal, and all the confidence, belief and vision that come with being empowered as a free, independent Nation, how are we ever going to change any of this in a meaningful way?

If 600 years as part of the UK has left Wales’ children poorer than every single English region except London, then I believe we owe it to those children to ask whether continuing to be a part of the UK is really in their best interest.We owe it to the children of Trevethin.

And don’t give me ‘but we are too poor to be independent’.

Wales’ children are too poor for us to not be independent. Let’s make it happen before things get any worse.

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