An ‘epidemic of poverty’ in Britain is having a dramatic impact on the survival rates and health chances of children from poor families, an influential coalition will warn this week in a major report that casts doubt on government efforts to close the inequality gap.
End Child Poverty, a 130-strong network of children’s charities, church groups, unions and think-tanks, claims that the gap between rich and poor represents a ‘huge injustice’ in British society and has become one of the major factors affecting child mortality rates.
Its report, based on a wide-ranging analysis of government data, finds that children from poor families are at 10 times the risk of sudden infant death as children from better-off homes. And it reveals how babies from disadvantaged families are more likely to be born underweight – an average of 200 grams less than children from the richest families. Poorer children are two-and-a-half times more likely to suffer chronic illness when toddlers and twice as likely to have cerebral palsy, according to the report, ‘Health Consequences of Poverty for Children’.
‘Poverty is now one of the greatest dangers faced by our children,’ said Nick Spencer, one of the report’s authors and professor of child health at the University of Warwick. ‘If poverty were an infection, we would be in the midst of a full-scale epidemic.’
The report is likely to revive the debate on child poverty and focus attention on Labour’s record when it comes to tackling social inequalities. In March 1999, the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, promised to eradicate child poverty ‘within a generation’. This was later defined as a commitment to end child poverty by 2020, with a target of halving the number of children living in poverty by 2010/11.
But last week the Conservatives attacked the government on its record for narrowing the gap between rich and poor. ‘Labour has failed, it has created a more unfair society and I think there is a real opportunity for the Conservative party now to lead this debate,’ the shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, said.
But while the current row over social inequality has tended to focus on education and benefits, the implications for health have been largely ignored. Now, however, the End Child Poverty report highlights how socio-economic factors affect the entire life of children born into poverty, from foetal development and early infancy through to teenage years and adulthood.
It found that children living in disadvantaged families are more than three times as likely to suffer from mental health disorders as those in well-off families and that infants under three years old in families with an annual income of less than £10,400 are twice as likely to suffer from asthma as those from families earning over £52,000.
The report also suggests the health consequences of being born into poverty continue well beyond infancy. For example, adults who came from deprived families were found to be 50 per cent more likely to have serious and limiting illnesses, such as type two diabetes and heart failure.
‘From the day they are born, children’s health and very survival are threatened by family poverty,’ said Donald Hirsch, co-author of the report and policy adviser to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.
‘It is one of society’s greatest inequalities that poor health is so dramatically linked to poverty. Children in the poorest UK families are at least twice as likely to die unexpectedly before their first birthdays than children in slightly better-off families. This is a huge injustice for the children in one of the richest nations in the world.’
The government claims it is closing the gap between rich and poor, but accepts that more needs to be done. The Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, said in June: ‘Although we have already lifted hundreds of thousands of children out of poverty with new tax credits, more people in work and better public services, the latest figures show we have not made enough progress.’
He added: ‘We will not deny or explain away the figures. We will take them as a spur to action, a call to conscience.’
The government recently announced the introduction of 10 pilot projects to tackle ill health among people from poor backgrounds, including rewarding parents for making sure their children attend health check-ups and receive inoculations.
But Hilary Fisher, director of the Campaign to End Child Poverty, said the new report showed that there was an urgent need for more robust measures to address the health consequences of economic deprivation. ‘This evidence has profound implications for public policy,’ Fisher said. ‘The facts prove that effective action to end child poverty would make a vital long-term contribution to improving the health of our nation and prevent avoidable incidences of physical and mental ill health.
‘The government made a bold promise to halve child poverty by 2010 and this now requires bold action.’