How can we boost the life chances of children?

As a new report reveals the challenges facing low-income children in the UK, Helen Barnard argues that education, housing and wages are the key to boosting life chances.

A new report from UNICEF has set out a wide range of challenges facing the UK’s children and families including low incomes and poor education results. It follows recent predictions from the Institute of Fiscal Studies that 400 000 more children will be in poverty by 2020 unless we take action.

However, we have a window of opportunity to take concrete and decisive action to change this future. Record levels of employment and the introduction of the National Living Wage provide a good basis to start from. The Government is currently developing its Life Chances Strategy, out later this year. Stephen Crabb, the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, in his first major speech, set out his intention to mobilise all parts of Government to tackle poverty.

The Secretary of State’s approach is welcome, building on David Cameron’s commitment to an ‘all-out assault on poverty’. However, to make a real long-term difference, a much more comprehensive plan is needed that involves Government working with employers and families that includes:

  • Investing in family support services. Strong, stable families give children the best start in life; support services should focus on supporting couples’ relationships, parenting and both parents’ and children’s mental health.
  • Investing in high quality early years education is also important. The effects of poverty can be seen when children are very young; high quality early education can improve children’s development and help them do better in school.
  • Increasing the availability of genuinely affordable rented housing. More and more families in poverty live in private rented accommodation. This is often very expensive and can be unstable and poor quality. And unless action is taken, by 2040 we predict that private rents will rise by 90%, but wages will only rise by 40%. The Government, working with the housing sector, urgently needs to increase the supply of housing of all types, to help reduce the cost of renting.
  • Refocusing the welfare to work and skills systems on reducing poverty. Currently neither welfare to work programmes or skills providers have to focus on helping families move into work which will lift them out of poverty. This should be the overarching goals of both sets of services.
  • Reversing some of the cuts to Universal Credit which will greatly reduce some families’ incomes, and reorienting the system so that work genuinely pays for low-income families. As it stands, if they earn the National Living Wage only families with two parents in full time jobs will reach an acceptable standard of living. Couples with other working patterns and lone parents will find that cuts to in-work benefits outweigh gains from the NLW.

The Government needs a coherent approach to tax, benefits and work to enable low income families to achieve economic security. Underpinning these actions, we need a new partnership between Governments, employers and families; all have a significant role to play in ending the social damage and drain on our economy caused by poverty.