Health & Fitness Real damage to NI children’s health as one in four live on breadline
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It is now well documented that children born into poverty are more likely to experience a wide range of health problems, including poor nutrition, chronic disease and mental health problems. Poverty puts an additional strain on families, which can lead to parental mental health deterioration and relationship problems, financial problems and substance misuse.
Josephine Tucker, Head of Policy and Research at Child Poverty Action Group, has written extensively about the impact of deprivation on paediatric health.
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She said: “The evidence linking poverty with ill-health is unequivocal. More than two-thirds of surveyed paediatricians (by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health) said that poverty and low income contribute ‘very much’ to ill-health among their patients, and almost half believe this has worsened in recent years, especially since the start of the pandemic. Their heartbreaking comments highlight how inadequate housing, homelessness, food insecurity, and the stress and stigma of poverty are affecting children’s physical and mental health in a myriad of ways. We hope that this will stand as a call to action for anyone who cares about the health of a whole generation to do something about poverty.
“We have met parents who are worried sick about their children’s needs but are overwhelmed by the immediate stress of trying to keep a roof over their heads. Some fear – often for good reason – that they might lose their job if they take a day off work, or have their benefits sanctioned if they cancel an appointment at the jobcentre.
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“The impacts of poverty on physical and mental health are lifelong, being seen in higher rates of arthritis, high blood pressure, respiratory illness and depression, among others, in later life.. A political commitment to reducing child poverty, backed by concrete action, is urgently needed if we are to safeguard the health of the next generation.”
Here in Northern Ireland 24% of children are living in poverty, the equivalent of one in four, or 103,000 and pressures on low-income families have naturally been hugely augmented by the pandemic.
According to new analysis by Save the Children and Child Poverty Action Group, we could see an extra 11,000 children plunged into poverty by autumn if the plan to cut Universal Credit by £20 is implemented.
These charities say the cut would be a double blow to children and would come on the back of years of persistently high levels of poverty in Northern Ireland, which has a higher number of families with more than two children than other UK regions and so has been hugely impacted by the two-child benefit cap introduced by the Tory government in 2017.
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Save the Children and Child Poverty Action Group have produced a briefing ‘Children Can’t Wait’, which looks at how the NI Executive could help lift thousands of children out of poverty. It finds that measures like introducing a Northern Irish Child Payment, based on the Scottish Child Payment, would lift as many as 27,000 children out of poverty, while removing the two-child limit would lift as many as 6,000 children out of poverty.
Both organisations are calling on the Executive to renew efforts to tackle child poverty by committing to investment and targeted reductions in child poverty as part of the upcoming Anti-Poverty Strategy.
Peter Bryson, head of Save the Children Northern Ireland said: “Families we work with tell us of the strain of managing family finances on a low income – any further reductions will push already hard pressed families over the edge and we are likely to see increased use of food banks and families struggling to heat homes and afford warm clothing as we approach autumn and winter. We just can’t allow this happen to Northern Ireland’s children.
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“Over the past 18 months household incomes have been significantly reduced, and we are fearful of the impact this is having and will continue to have on children. The Anti-Poverty Strategy set to be presented to the Executive is a big opportunity to change this.
“There is a huge opportunity here to protect childhoods. This is an area of investment the Executive needs to prioritise.
““There is political will here. But it is a huge indictment on our society that 24% of children have grown up in poverty here over the past ten years and we seem to have been comfortable with this - which is shocking. There has been a reticence by the Executive to make budgetary commitments.
“We need more investment in social security that puts more money in families’ pockets and that is the single most important thing in enabling families to support their children and do what they all want to do which is the very best for their child.
“Welfare is not sufficient for families to have dignity. One that we knew of, both parents were working, the mother was working part-time and had just had her second child when she got Covid and couldn’t work, then the father got Covid and lost his job and the rug was pulled out from beneath them and they got into debt. This is happening across the board.
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“Save the Children were able to give them a small grant and food vouchers which provided some relief - but it’s not enough and there are huge numbers of cases like this since the start of the pandemic.
Reductions in social security mean less family income and more stress in the home, meaning parents are under huge pressure to provide a healthy environment to raise their children in.”
The policy from central Tory government is that the route out of poverty is work, but what Peter Bryson makes clear is that increasingly in-work families are still subject to poverty.
“The narrative about work being the answer to eradicating child poverty is not true because many families with parents who both work in low wage jobs are still struggling to raise their families,” adds Bryson.
“The purpose of social security here should be to protect families and families with more than two children should not be penalised.”
Save the Children is focused on the alleviation of child poverty supporting families and schools to do their best for children and the huge importance of care for 0-5-year-olds in terms of developmental health.
They work in Belfast and Londonderry to make the early years system more impactful in terms of Sure Start and pre-school services.
“Are we comfortable with 24% of our children growing up in poverty? This statistic must go down,” adds Bryson. “The current welfare system is not fit for purpose.”
Alison Graham, chief executive of Child Poverty Action Group added: “The growth in child poverty can be stopped but it will take a range of actions and revoking the planned £20 cut in universal credit and tax credits is an essential first step. The policy choices we make can shape outcomes for children. Shielding them from poverty and its lifelong effects should be a top priority”.
Further measures recommended in the briefing paper, is a call for closure of loopholes in the welfare mitigations package: many households re protected from the benefit cap and bedroom tax through this package, but some households are still affected. Changing this would lift hundreds of families out of deep poverty at a cost of £150m. Another key recommendation is that child-related benefits be restored to 2009-10 levels because since then the child element in Universal Credit, child tax credit and child benefit have been cut. Such a move would lift a further 14,000 children out of poverty at a cost of £150m.
Peter Bryson, added: “We are at a turning point and the time to act for change is now. The Anti-Poverty Strategy is a golden opportunity for the Executive to tackle years of stubbornly high levels of poverty.”
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