Child Poverty – if there’s no political will to eradicate it, is there a way?
“It should be headline news!” Whether from expenses scandals to social injustice – when something isn’t fair, drawing attention to it is a good starting point in getting it addressed. But what if that “something” has been with us for years, for decades. When does it become the new normal about which ‘nothing can be done’? Sioned Williams MS writes about the importance of government in tackling social injustice.
Last week I was honoured to accept the role of spokesperson on Social Justice and Equalities for Plaid Cymru, under Adam Price’s new Senedd team.
Our society is riven by inequality - just as we saw the poorest shoulder the burden for the austerity agenda and the pandemic, so will they be the hardest hit by the recession that is already upon us.
My priority in this role will be to address the shameful levels of poverty and neglect across Wales. And let us be clear – we should be ashamed. “We” as a nation, but also those who have had the power to be able to tackle it.
Poverty is not inevitable. This was the conclusion of a report by Oxfam in 2014, and even more damning, a report from the United Nations in 2018. The UN report concluded that “The experience of the United Kingdom, especially since 2010, underscores the conclusion that poverty is a political choice.”
These reports refer to the UK, and it’s all too tempting for those in power to hide the situation in Wales within this wider context. So, what of the situation in Wales? Last week, the End Child Poverty coalition confirmed that Wales now has “the worst child poverty rate of all the UK nations, with 31% of children living below the poverty line.” One in three children are living in poverty, and this figure has got worse since the Welsh Government last reported on it. In fact, their last progress report – in 2019 – admits that child poverty “remains stubbornly high”.
If poverty is due to a lack of political will, what are they not doing that they could be doing? The long term failure of the trickle-down economics favoured by the Conservative Party is well documented, but Welsh Labour’s administrative approach – keeping poverty within ‘acceptable’ limits - has also failed. It is time for a shift of emphasis: towards the eradication of poverty..
As with many cases of social injustice, the problem is complex. Employment is obviously part of the solution, but this isn’t a simple matter of parents being out of work. In fact, the End Child Poverty report tells us that three quarters of the children in poverty were in households with at least one parent in work.
Nor is this an issue that affects only certain communities in Wales – this is a Wales-wide problem, with 20 of the 22 local authorities in Wales seeing an increase in child poverty over the last 5 years. Cardiff has the highest rates, while Wrexham has seen the largest growth.
The Welsh Government themselves note in their report on Child Poverty that where they have the power to directly intervene, they can make a positive difference. But this is not enough when more and more children are sinking into poverty.
My colleague in Westminster, Liz Saville Roberts, has previously remarked that Labour’s time in office in Wales is typified by “good intentions but bad governance”, repeatedly setting “admirable targets”, only to drop them when missed.
What should their solution have been? The problem is due to the austerity driven by successive Westminster governments. The truth is that nowhere is the case for greater powers for Wales more apparent than in relation to poverty.
If the problem requires money, and the purse strings are controlled by Westminster, it’s unsurprising that the issue has remained “stubborn.” Surely now is the time to demand increased powers to be able to tackle poverty ourselves. This starts with pressing for the devolution of welfare to Wales, so that a more compassionate system can be developed with the eradication of poverty as its goal.
In the meantime, Welsh Government has the power to treat some of the symptoms of poverty – child hunger. The Child Poverty Action Group identified that 70,000 children living in poverty in Wales are not eligible for free school meals. The benefits of a regular, nutritious meal can improve a child’s performance and health, and thereby offset some of the injustices and inequalities caused by poverty. The Welsh Government could immediately increase the eligibility criteria to include children from all families in receipt of Universal Credit and make permanent the extension to families with no recourse to public funds.
There are things that the Welsh Government can do today to help. My role is to keep focus on the issue and keep pressure on getting both the short-term initiatives delivered, and on establishing eradication as our long-term goal in Wales.
As we recover from the pandemic, we shouldn’t just strive to get back to how things were before the first lockdown. Child poverty was already too high before the pandemic
Child poverty in Wales should be headline news. Poverty in Wales should be headline news. And yet with no targets to tackle child poverty in Wales, is there a political will to address this national scandal?
Our recovery from the pandemic should not be a neutral process, a return to ‘business as usual’. It must be transformative - with the eradication of the poverty and inequalities laid bare by Covid at its heart. As a new voice in the Senedd, with responsibility for holding the Welsh Government to account on matters of social justice and inequality, I know where my focus will be.