By Harriet Churchill
In October Prime Minister Teresa May spoke again about her desire to tackle burning injustices and her belief in the good government can do. She pledged austerity is over. Yet despite evidence of desperate poverty and support services under strain, the government firmly denies austerity unfairly and adversely targets those most in need.
How the austerity agenda hurts children in need
In 2010 the Coalition government had much scope to tackle the economic crisis, pursue anti-poverty measures and promote the interests of young people. Under the former Labour governments, there was a sizeable fall in child poverty and substantial improvements in children’s outcomes. Nevertheless, greater progress was needed in several areas — not least severe child poverty (which some measures, such as benefit sanctions, exacerbated) and safeguarding child welfare. Indeed initially, despite its austerity agenda, the Coalition promised to protect those on the lowest incomes and maintain the goal of ending child poverty by 2020 and to ensure there were sufficient help and services for vulnerable children, youth and families.
Promises since broken. Child poverty targets since scrapped. Instead, the austerity agenda has adversely targeted children, youth and families in need.
How austerity has exacerbated economic disadvantage
Analysing the economic impact across households of over 40 cutbacks to, and changes in, benefits and tax credits introduced between 2010 and 2016, the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) and Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) found couple families with children are on average £2080 a year worse off with the figure at £1940 for lone-parent families. Perversely, families already at greatest risk of poverty — larger families, families with young children, families with disabled adults and/or children, and those in which parents are low-paid or work part-time — financially lose the most. In comparison, other households, like pensioners and adult households, sustained much smaller losses (£240-£440 per year).
In defence, the government would emphasise its efforts to tackle welfare dependency, promote employment opportunity and support deserving, hard-working families via the Work Programme, taxation changes, Shared Parental Leave, subsidised childcare and increases in Minimum Wages. But the scale of austerity (spanning the cuts in benefits and tax credits mentioned above as well as other public spending cuts and fiscal measures such as frozen public sector pay from 2010 through to 2017) and testing macro-economic trends (e.g. sluggish private sector wage growth; relatively high inflation) mean many lower to middle-income ‘hard-working families’ are not better off.
Better integrated anti-poverty, welfare and employment policies are economically and socially feasible, beneficial and necessary. For example, many call for the government to reverse the cuts in Universal Credit and re-design the system to provide dignified and enabling support for low earning and low-income adults, youth and families – as recently detailed by CPAG in 2017.
After, eight years of austerity, child poverty is back on the rise. Most concerning are the trends in severe poverty. Studies report the number of children in temporary accommodation in England more than doubled from 2010 to 2017 and 350,000 children in the UK were classified ‘destitute’ in 2017. Severe poverty concerns are now so extreme that they prompted a UN human rights investigation which described levels of poverty in the UK as ‘patently unjust’ and ‘a social calamity’. Today’s levels of economic inequality and hardship not only place individuals, families and neighbourhoods under immense strain. Society as a whole suffers from compromised welfare, potential and cohesion.
Children’s services under strain
Universal (e.g. schools, childcare, health visitors) and targeted services (e.g. children’s centres, youth, social and mental health) directly promote young people’s well-being and potential as well as support parents and families to do so. But austerity has placed these services, and the practitioners working within them, under enormous pressure with reduced resources and increased needs. The National Audit Office (NAO) reported central government funding for Local Authorities (LAs) in England nearly halved from 2010 to 2018. Within this broader context, legal duties to support disabled children, safeguard child welfare and provide services for Looked After Children — coupled with substantial increases in the numbers of children at risk and in need in these regards — has meant local funding has become more concentrated on children’s social care and more limited for services elsewhere. Analysing official data, the NAO reported in the same study linked above that LA spending on children’s centres and community development fell by 50 percent and 59 percent respectively from 2010 to 2018; the Sutton Trust estimated there were 1,000 fewer children’s centres in March 2018 compared to March 2009; and the Local Government Association (LGA) reported local funding for youth services fell by 40 per cent from 2010 to 2017. Cuts and changes to schools and health budgets add to these pressures. Analysis of service data indicates significant increases in mental health concerns with the number of pupils referred to children’s mental health services (CAMHS) by schools increasing by a third from 2014 to 2018. However, around 31 per cent of those referred and in need were declined services.
In response, the government points to its investment in targeted early interventions and support, including more subsidised childcare, the Troubled Families Programme, the Pupil Premium schemes, the National Citizens Service and the Children’s Social Care Innovation Fund. While these include worthwhile initiatives, they have been informed by negative stereotypes about ‘problem families’ and ‘incompetent professionals’ while their impacts curtailed by the broader context of reduced resources and increased needs highlighted above.
If the Prime Minister is committed to the good government can do, the post-austerity era should start with doing less harm. Then the government should proceed to spearhead the policies, investment and collaboration urgently needed on economic and social grounds to improve prospects and welfare for all.