Child poverty and Northern Ireland's house of cards
Northern Ireland has seen little progress on child poverty for more than five years, according to figures released last month.
Analysis published by the End Child Poverty coalition found that, while there has been some improvement, one in four local children still live in poverty. In 2015-16 the child poverty rate was 26%, while the newest measurement is 24%.
However, the researchers warned that this data covers the period up until March 2019, so any negative effects from the pandemic are unaccounted for. Key findings include:
- One in four children (24%) – around 95,000 in total - are growing up in poverty in Northern Ireland, with two thirds of that group (66%) growing up in families where parents are working
- Places with the highest levels of child poverty include Belfast (26.1%), Derry and Strabane (26.0%) and Newry and Mourne (26.3%)
- Within Belfast there are significant inequalities - with one in three children in North Belfast (30%) growing up in poverty, 50% higher than in the south of the city (20%)
- Areas with the lowest rates of child poverty include Lisburn and Castlereagh (19.0%), Antrim and Newtownabbey (21.3%), and Ards and North Down (21.4%)
Speaking on behalf of End Child Poverty Lorna Ballard, National Director for Northern Ireland Action for Children, said: “Every day we see families struggling to make ends meet, worrying about providing for their children’s’ basic needs and making decisions like whether to heat their homes or pay for food, and the situation is only getting worse.”
End Child Poverty (ECP) is a coalition of civic society organisations which includes Action for Children, Save the Children and the National Children’s Bureau. The coalition commissioned this research, which was carried out by Loughborough University and is based on the latest data published by the Department of Work and Pensions. The report is called Local indicators of child poverty after housing costs, 2019/20 and it covers the five-year period from 2014–15 to 2019–20.
ECP is calling on Stormont to recognise the negative impacts of child poverty and to be more ambitious, and act more swiftly, in trying to reduce and ultimately eliminate child poverty from local society.
Ms Ballard said: “Child poverty is not inevitable, and with the right policies and commitment from government, we would see positive long-lasting change. Our children are our future and they deserve the best start in life. We must invest in them for a better future for all of us.”
The group recommends several actions, including:
- Implementation of the recommendations on child poverty stemming from reports commissioned by the Department of Communities
- Support for an extension of the £20 uplift to Universal Credit (UC) and Working Tax Credits beyond September
- A strengthening of NI’s bespoke welfare mitigations package (and the removal of the two-child limit within UC)
- The delivery of better jobs with better wages and a more flexible working environment
These recommendations are very similar to ones made by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) in its efforts to tackle poverty in the UK.
The JRF has broadly identified four strands to tackling poverty, three of which are bundled up in the campaign requests from End Child Poverty.
However, it is the one strand that isn’t mentioned which could be set to cause a lot of trouble here in NI.
Poverty rates are usually calculated by looking at people’s financial situation after housing costs, because this provides a much more accurate measure of what families actually have to live on.
And, by that measure, Northern Ireland actually has the lowest poverty rates in the UK. That is good news – but the reasons why are less welcome.
- Get as many people as possible in work
- Improve pay for low-income families (work itself is not a route out of poverty, as shown by the fact that most children living in poverty have at least one parent in work)
- Strengthen the benefits system
- Increase the amount of low-cost housing
Northern Ireland has a low employment rate (although unemployment isn’t sky high, instead rates of economic inactivity here are disproportionately large), has a lot of low-paying jobs and, while it does have some of its own welfare mitigations, the local benefits system is very much led by Westminster and by the long-term shift on to Universal Credit.
The reason local poverty rates are so low is because NI has the most affordable housing in the UK. However, because of local weaknesses (or, at least, an absence of strengths) in the other four strands, local poverty rates are at the mercy of housing costs.
Last year, NI house prices rose by 7.4%. This happened during the pandemic and so, like the wider economic effects of Covid-19, will not have been factored in to the latest analysis by End Child Poverty.
There could be all sorts of reasons for this, and prices may fall, or at least not rise much further, as furlough and business support schemes are withdrawn in the coming months (and the real economic fallout from Covid-19 begins to bite, all while the UK grapples with Brexit).
Nonetheless, wherever one looks there are causes for concern around poverty and child poverty.
The way to tackle this – more jobs, better jobs, stronger benefits, affordable housing – remains the same, but pursuing those things might become very challenging.
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