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For Thousands of Young Children, Poverty is All they have Known

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New data from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reveals the extent of poverty in families

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One million children (26%) under the age of four are growing up in poverty in the UK, according to “heart-breaking” data published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. 

A further 1.3 million primary-aged children are growing up in poverty. One in six children are living in persistent poverty – when a household is in poverty for at least three out of four years. This means that, for the youngest children, their entire lives have been spent in deprivation.

The shocking figures raise concerns about the mental and physical health, as well as the educational attainment, of this generation of youngsters. Deprivation in early years is linked to poor health and outcomes in years to come. 

“This winter we have seen two crises collide – the cost of living is forcing families to cut back on essentials and our health service is being overwhelmed by demand,” said Peter Matejic, chief analyst at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. “Leaving people to go hungry, skip showers or live in cold homes risks further profound and long-term consequences – not just for individuals’ health but for the state’s capacity to deliver what all of us as citizens should be able to expect.”

Just over a quarter (27%) of all children are now living in poverty. This is a decrease from a high of 31% in 2019. However, the JRF analysis reveals that deprivation is deepening for families, with more households are going without essentials such as food and heating than in 2021. 

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For Sara, mum to three-year-old Jake, the challenges of being a single parent during the cost of living crisis are all too obvious. Single parent households are more likely to be in poverty. She dreams of learning to drive and taking Jake on a foreign holiday – something she never had as a child. But right now, it’s hard enough to pay for the basics. 

“I’m finding my bills difficult,” Sara said. “I’m hoping I will be able to just about cope when I get my cost of living payment from the Government. The electricity bill is definitely a problem.”

Rising energy bills and food prices mean that affording the essentials has become challenging, with even discount supermarkets seeing rising costs. “Nappies, pasta, sauces… it’s all more expensive,” she said. “Every shop is £50 now.”

Children need play, toys, treats and moments of fun and laughter. Little Village HQ, which works with young families in poverty in the London area, has been supporting Sara and Jake, helping her get toys that can support her son’s cognitive development and emotional wellbeing.

“You get lovely toys, nice clothing. I definitely would have struggled to get those things on my own,” said Sara.

A combination of factors are helping to drive child poverty. The first is rising food and energy prices – overall inflation was at 9.2% in December, a slight decrease from the autumn. Food inflation, however, was at 16.8% over the Christmas period – and it’s that rise in prices that Sara is seeing in her shopping basket. 

A Life-Long Impact

Ages zero to five are the most critical stage of development for children. During this period, children are vulnerable to environments and experiences that can negatively impact their development, including poverty. 

There is an increasing body of research suggesting that there is a “strong link” between poverty and cognitive development in the early years of life, which can have a long-lasting impact on a child’s life. 

By the time they start school, children from low-income families in the UK can already be up to a year behind middle-income children when it comes to cognitive skills such as speech and language. The gap between the poorest and most advantaged tenth of children is as much as 19 months.

Children born into poverty also have higher rates of infant mortality, tooth decay, and higher risk of unintentional injury and obesity, as well as lower birth weights. 

But, despite the importance of early years to children’s health and outcomes, support for young families was decimated by austerity policies instigated by successive Coalition and Conservative Governments, as reported by this newspaper.

Between 2010/11 and 2020/21, investment in early years support by local authorities fell from £3.8 billion to £1.9 billion. The cuts did not fall equally. Total spending on children and young people’s services fell by 10% in the most deprived local authorities during this period. In contrast, the least deprived areas in the UK saw a 13% increase in spending across the decade.  

At the same time, changes to the welfare state since 2012 – including the two-child tax credit limit introduced in 2017 and the benefit cap – has restricted families’ incomes. Larger families in particular are struggling with poverty, hit both by the tax credit cut and the cap.

The JRF singles out the October 2021 decision to cut the £20 Universal Credit uplift – introduced during the pandemic – as a driver of poverty.

“The £20 uplift was the right political choice,” said Matejic. “The relief provided by this measure, taken away just as the cost of living crisis hit, also demonstrated that the standard rates of social security are fundamentally not fit for purpose, with millions now going without essentials such as food, heating and cleanliness.”

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