By Paddy Hillyard, Professor of Sociology at Queen’s University
Under the Child Poverty Act 2010 (CPA), the Northern Ireland Executive has a legal obligation to assist the United Kingdom in meeting four key measures to reduce child poverty by 2020.
Over the decade, the Executive has developed a number of ineffective programmes packaged under changing and confusing titles. There is still no comprehensive, coherent, integrated, evidence-based and costed strategy to end child poverty in Northern Ireland.
Moreover, the annual reports required under the CPA to report on progress have been vacuous and have mainly consisted of a list of departmental activities most of which will do little or nothing to reduce the number of children being brought up in poverty.
The statistics on the extent of child poverty are shocking. The latest figure (2012) shows that around one fifth of our children are in relative poverty (60 percent below the median income of all individuals in Northern Ireland).
This proportion will increase substantially as a direct result of the welfare cuts. Apart from blighted life chances, child poverty is estimated to cost Northern Ireland and the Treasury a staggering £757 million a year through loss of earnings to individuals, extra spending on services to deal with the consequences of child poverty and loss of taxes. The cost of eliminating child poverty, in contrast, is estimated to be substantially less at between £550 and £675 million per year. It, therefore, makes economic and social sense to make child poverty a top priority of the Executive.
To reduce child poverty, we must do two things: either increase the resources to poor families or reduce their outgoings.
The former can be achieved by a minimum wage guarantee, support for a living wage, regulation of zero-hour contracts, and numerous environmental job creation schemes.
To reduce families outgoings, we need universal child care, a free school day, access to affordable credit and advice, breakfast clubs and retrofitting insulation together with other measures to reduce energy costs.
In addition, we need to promote the well-being of children through the elimination of the educational attainment gap, expansion of Sure Start, and increases in the unit of resource to primary schools.
To pay for such a comprehensive strategy we must redistribute public resources from the better-off to the poor. This will involve poverty-proofing of all items of public expenditure, and among other measures: the introduction of a progressive rating system linked to the capital value of the house and tax returns, and the development of charges to improve public health and to discourage polluting behaviour.
We can end child poverty in Northern Ireland. But to do so requires imagination, courage, joined up government and, most important of all, taking on powerful vested interests in the current distribution of existing resources. If we eliminate child poverty, we will also create a fairer and more equal society.