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Thinking of the children

Source: Public Sector Executive July/Aug 2013

Matthew Reed, chief executive of The Children’s Society, highlights the risks of welfare reform pushing children into poverty.

Recent welfare reforms have hit countless working families, with reduced benefits and increased restrictions adding to their financial difficulty in the depths of deprivation and austerity. 

Criticism of the reforms has been especially strong when it comes to the needs of disabled children, with recent protests over the spare room subsidy, or bedroom tax, reaching critical point. 

PSE heard from The Children’s Society chief executive Matthew Reed about the scale of the risks, and how policy could be redesigned to meet this need. 

He said: “Many of the changes the Government is making to the welfare system, such as the benefit cap and changes to support for disabled children, will affect large numbers of children and families that are already struggling to make ends meet.  

“It is the combined effect of so many different changes happening that is hitting children hard. 

“It is particularly worrying that, as a result of this, even though the Government committed to end child poverty by 2020, the numbers are likely to rise. 

“The Institute for Fiscal Studies recently estimated that, in stark contrast to achieving this goal, there will be around 750,000 more children in poverty by 2020 than there are today.” 

It’s a shocking statistic, and steep cuts to local government make it more difficult to see how services could be redesigned to avoid more children falling into poverty.

Fair and square 

The Children’s Society is calling for a change in direction of policy to address this inequality. The Fair and Square campaign, launched by the charity, would see free school meals being made available to all children in families receiving Universal Credit – lifting 100,000 children out of poverty. 

“The Government must take effective steps to address child poverty, especially in working families,” Reed said. “Nearly two thirds of children in poverty are in working families, and the number of children in poverty in working families has increased by a quarter of a million over the last 15 years.

“In too many cases, low-income working families are cut off from the support that they need. For example, 700,000 school age children in poverty in England are not entitled to receive a free school meal – simply because their parents are in work.”

Missing funding 

It’s not just national changes that are having a devastating effect – local authorities have had their budgets substantially reduced, meaning support for disadvantaged families is increasingly thin on the ground. 

Reed said: “Local authorities are under severe pressure to deliver more with fewer resources. 

“This is particularly clear from the recent changes to the Social Fund. Since April, key parts of this fund, such as Crisis Loans and Community Care Grants, have been abolished and new local welfare assistance schemes have been set up by local authorities to replace them.”

Funding for these schemes has been cut by nearly half compared to equivalent funding in 2010, The Children’s Society report ‘Nowhere to Turn?’ reveals. 

“As a result, in many areas access to support for families facing a crisis, such as desperately needing funds to visit a sick child or mend a broken fridge, is no longer available,” Reed explained. 

Hardest hit? 

There has been a significant emphasis on the needs of the elderly in recent months, with both evidence and rhetoric identifying this group as most at risk for a number of social challenges; healthcare, loneliness, access to services and the rising cost of pensions.

But The Children’s Society warns that children are being disproportionately hit by austerity measures. The annual cost of child poverty today has been estimated at £29bn and an IFS study published last year found average incomes for families with children is predicted to fall by 4.2% between 2010 and 2015, compared to 0.9% for all households. 

Reed said: “Parents are having to make hard choices between which of the basics they can provide; between putting food on the table, buying their children shoes for school or repairing the heating. 

“The Government needs to put children’s well-being at the heart of policy making to make sure children are protected from the effects of cuts to make sure they can flourish.” 

He concluded: “Protecting children in an age of austerity is a huge challenge.

“It is widely recognised that changes need to be made, but they must be made in a way that is fair, particularly for the most disadvantaged children. All changes must be made in the context of awareness of the impact on both their lives today and their well-being in the future.”


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