Observer column: 18 November 2016
Poor Children Need Help
A recent report by the Sussex Community Foundation highlighted the extent of child poverty in parts of Hastings, with three quarters of the children in some Hastings neighbourhoods living in poverty. While these were rather old figures, based on the Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) 2015, and reported by me in this column over a year ago, they are still relevant, and are unlikely to have changed significantly.
It's worth noting that the overall percentage of children living in poverty is around a quarter, compared to the national average of one fifth, with some Hastings neighbourhoods in the lowest ten percent in the country for child poverty. But this highlights the differences between the richest and poorest areas in our town.
The definition of 'child poverty' used in the IMD is children living in households with an income that is less than 60% of the national average. The data included in the definition may not be included in future in the IMD, as the Labour government's target to eliminate child poverty based on this definition by 2020 has now been abolished by the current government as being 'overly simplistic'.
We do know however that average household incomes in parts of Hastings are very low - this is linked to high levels of unemployment, but benefit caps and sanctions are also pushing more households into poverty as the holes in the safety net get bigger. There are many factors at play here: lack of accessible jobs, lack of qualifications and skills, lack of employment experience, and lack of affordable transport all make it difficult to get onto the employment ladder. These high levels of worklessness in some areas affect the culture that children grow up in, and their future expectations. If hardly anyone in their neighbourhood has a job, and those that do earn poverty-level wages, children are going to grow up with little hope of being financially successful.
To help address some of this, we're hopeful that Hastings Council's bid to the EU 'Community Led Local Development Fund' will be confirmed, providing £5m over five years to develop employment, training and other initiatives in the poorest parts of Hastings. With wider regeneration projects already bringing new employers to town, this will help us get people from the poorer parts of town into these new jobs, and help them get the new skills they need.
But 'child poverty' is made up of much more than household income, and incorporates health, educational achievement, access to training, housing conditions, cultural activities, and parenting. We do need a way to judge whether children are living in poverty, and how that affects their life chances. To do that, we need more and better data. We need to know more about educational achievement of children in the poorest families and the poorest areas. We need to understand why child poverty remains so high in some areas, and why that is relatively unaffected by levels of general economic prosperity, and why it continues for successive generations. And we need the resources to do something about it.
This isn't just a Hastings problem of course, it's a problem in many towns and cities up and down the country, and in rural areas too. It's unacceptable that many children in our communities are living in poverty, a fact that's undeniable, however it's defined. Abandoning targets and abolishing data is not a solution.
Council Leader's column