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For a country as wealthy as ours, it cannot be right that in 2018/19 over four million children were living in poverty — an increase of 600,000 children since 2010/11. For these children, being in poverty is not a statistic, it is an inescapable and all-encompassing element of their lives.

Poverty has been a reality for a substantial portion of children growing up in Britain for centuries. Even in the 21st century, before the coronavirus crisis hit, nine children in a classroom of 30 were living below the UK’s relative poverty line. 

What has changed in recent years is the profile of households in poverty. Most notably, child poverty has become more common in working households than in workless households. In 2009/10, 54% of children in absolute poverty were in working families. Nine years later, 72% of children in poverty were in working families. Many families work flat out to support their family — sometimes in multiple jobs — and are still unable to earn the income they need.  The coronavirus crisis will worsen many of these alarming statistics.

As England’s Children’s Commissioner I meet children from all sorts of backgrounds and not every child growing up in poverty is unhappy, doing badly at school or at risk. But the evidence is clear — poverty almost always makes existing vulnerabilities worse. Growing up in poverty puts at risk the building blocks of a good childhood like secure relationships, a decent home and an inspiring education.

Most obviously, poverty can be a huge source of stress and worry for the children who experience it. Children in poverty are also much more likely to experience material deprivation. Education and employment opportunities for children in poverty are also fewer. Research by my office has found that 37% of children who receive free school meals leave education without a Level 2 Qualification, compared to 18% of all children. The consequences for their life chances are obvious. Growing up in poverty is all about the here and now, and constant uncertainty means that poor children cannot plan for their future like their more affluent peers.  

It is staggering that in this wealthy country we have children regularly skipping meals while their parents struggle to buy food. I cannot tell you how heart-breaking it is to go on a school visit and to find that there is actually a food bank in the school itself. Too many children living in poverty are also growing up in temporary accommodation, such as office block conversions where families are cramming into flats the size of a parking space.

Tackling these problems will be tough and expensive. In my view, it can only be done nationally with the full weight of government behind it. Failing to do so means accepting there will always be millions of children with poor outcomes, poor health, poor prospects and social problems that end up costing billions to deal with.

The Chancellor’s quick action to introduce a furlough scheme during the coronavirus crisis averted catastrophe for many families, but those living with poverty will need more help in the months and years ahead. That is why I argued during the coronavirus crisis that there should be an immediate uplift in child benefit, of at least £10 per child, to help all families. I also believe the two-child limit on UC and tax credits must now go, as should the benefit cap. Many parents whose hours have been cut can no longer reach the earnings threshold at which they are exempted. I would also like to see families who need Universal Credit receiving their first payment straight away, not in five weeks which too often leads to family debt rising. 

In the medium and long-term, I want to see a complete re-evaluation of how we tackle child poverty. This must range from investment in early help programmes like Family Hubs and Sure Start, to recasting our social security system so it does not penalise some of those who need it most. It must mean tackling the disadvantage gap in schools and making sure those areas that are struggling to cope with the effects of poverty, many of them in Northern England, are given the resources to tackle generational problems.

Undeniably, there are millions of children who are not part of our national progress. Turning this around should be the priority for any party of government, and for a government elected on the promise of ‘levelling-up’ there is no excuse not to act now. Too many hard-working, tired, over-stretched parents are in low paid, insecure work, struggling to make ends meet. They contribute to society through their taxes and efforts, but live week to week. They are doing the right thing, but the odds are stacked against them.

The consequences for their children are obvious, and the problems of poverty cascade down through the decades. How the Government responds to this challenge will affect the lives of millions of children for years to come, and a failure to act will lead to failures in other policy areas, from gang-related crime to the rising costs of the care and special needs education systems. 

Helping these children into the future must be a national ongoing mission, not just a temporary easing of the consequence of a once in a lifetime public health crisis.

Anne Longfield OBE is the Children’s Commissioner for England. This article first appeared in our Centre Write magazine Family friendly?. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.