Newspaper headlines have had a consistent theme in the past month. UNICEF feeding British children for the first time, the free school meals fiasco that was called a “disgrace” by the Prime Minister, and the Government planning to end the boost to Universal Credit. These all have a connection to one common problem: child poverty. COVID-19 has brought this issue to the fore and exacerbated conditions for the 30% of children in the UK experiencing poverty. Government policies to provide social security for children in poverty are limited in expenditure with insufficient breadth. Education policies are only being rolled out slowly and inefficiently after intense political pressure. This points to policy changes needed to support some of the country’s most vulnerable children during the COVID-19 crisis.
Social Security Policies
Attention has recently directed on social security policies such as Universal Credit, with a temporary £20 increase in the basic rate of this benefit being a key policy change in response to increasing poverty rates. This is particularly important for families with children, who comprise 40% of those on Universal Credit. This makes it short-sighted for the government to end this top-up to Universal Credit in April 2021. The enormous 108% increase in couples with children receiving Universal Credit from the start of the pandemic to August 2020 indicates that poverty among families with children is intensifying rather than decreasing. Maintaining this £20 rise throughout the Parliament and (increasing it in line with inflation) can help prevent a further 730,000 children from falling into poverty.
To make Universal Credit more flexible and beneficial for children, the government should reform its policies which propel child poverty for large families, such as the two-child limit. This limit means that a family can receive Universal Credit or Working Tax Credit for only their first two children if their other children are born after April 2017. It amounts to a reduction in support of £2,782 yearly for every child who does not qualify for support, compared to what they would have been entitled to before this policy’s implementation. This makes it unsurprising that families with three or more children have higher rates of poverty.
Alongside the two-child limit, social security policies include a benefit cap of £23,000 a year in London and £20,000 annually elsewhere. This cap leaves benefits inadequate for many families who face substantial shortfalls between the safety net they can access and the costs they must meet, which is particularly pertinent in the current COVID-19 context. Indeed, the contradiction in policy of increasing benefits while simultaneously having a benefit cap means that benefit uplifts exclude many families most in need of support. Given how such families’ income and hence children’s poverty and living standards have been exacerbated by COVID-19, there is a strong case for the government to abolish the two-child limit and benefit cap.
A positive initiative for children has been the £170 million COVID-19 Winter Grant scheme. This asks local authorities to ring-fence 80% of the funding to support low-income families with children in paying for food and bills. However, local authorities do not have access to Universal Credit data, suggesting they lack comprehensive knowledge of all the families in receipt of benefits or in difficult circumstances in their local area. The government can facilitate councils in administering this policy by opening data access to them, assisting them in targeting families with children most in need.
Amidst all these policies, tackling child poverty also necessitates a consideration of the intersectional nature of poverty, and incorporating neglected groups such as migrant children into policies. The government has dismissed the needs of those children whose families have no recourse to public funds. These are migrants who are not citizens of European Economic Area countries, and hence are not allowed to access most state-funded benefits. Their exclusion from state support means migrant children, who usually have ethnic minority status, are at greater risk of destitution.
The educational support for children in poverty in the form of resources has been hampered by U-turns and delays. Free school meals have been at the heart of this, and this provision for children whose parents receive benefits has been plagued with uncertainty. This is because the government reversed its free school meal policy by first refusing then agreeing to provide them over the summer holidays. Most recently, the government had issued guidance recommending that schools prioritise giving food parcels. After severe backlash associated with the meagre food packages, the government retracted this guidance and has now granted schools the freedom to choose between food parcels, local vouchers or national vouchers. Nevertheless, the option preferred by parents of children in poverty would be direct cash payments. These would less stigmatising and enable parents to make choices about where to shop for their children rather than be confined to the supermarkets where vouchers can be used.
Another element worthy of noting is the inclusion of some groups of children whose families have no recourse to public funds as eligible for free school meals. This is a welcome move. However, it is only a temporary shift in policy due to COVID-19, reflective of the myopic changes the government has been making. In recognition of the fact that poor migrant children’s need to be nourished extends beyond COVID-19, the government should make this a permanent expansion to their free school meals eligibility criteria.
Access to digital devices is also crucial for children to continue their education remotely, given higher government expectations of the amount of home learning to be undertaken. While the government had distributed laptops over the summer 2020 term, these were only allocated to a narrow range of children such as care leavers. The government’s later efforts to increase allocation of laptops to disadvantaged children proved insufficient, as two-thirds of state schools had to provide IT equipment for disadvantaged children whilst waiting for government support. During the third national lockdown, the government committed to providing 300,000 more laptops and tablets to be dispatched to disadvantaged children. However, they are slow in achieving their target, with over 60,000 devices left to be delivered (as of the 17th of January). Implementing this policy at a faster pace is critical to prevent children living in poverty from falling further behind in their studies and increasing the attainment gap associated with their socioeconomic disadvantage.
The recently announced inquiry from the Work and Pensions Committee about addressing the growing number of children facing poverty is essential. However, the Department of Work and Pensions and Department for Education have no time to waste in adopting a multifaceted and holistic cross-governmental approach to ending child poverty. If the government does not urgently take further action, it could marginalise over 4.2 million children and drive them into deeper poverty amid a global pandemic.
Basma Yaghi is a social policy researcher and recent MSc in International Social and Public Policy Research graduate of the London School of Economics. Her main interest is education policy, especially in relation to disadvantaged groups.