A report this week says that around one-third of children in the United Kindgom, one of the world's wealthiest countries, are living in poverty. The report's authors say the situation is much worse in isolated areas of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The report coincides with the government's annual update on its pledge to eradicate child poverty within a generation.
Prague, 20 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The United Kingdom enjoys living standards on par with other Western European countries. Average incomes are around $30,000 a year, and the signs of prosperity are everywhere, from high home-ownership rates to personal luxuries. Around half of school-age children are said to own mobile telephones, for example.
So the findings of a report released this week may come as a surprise. The report finds that around one-third of children in the U.K. are living in poverty, and that the problem is much worse in isolated pockets of the country.
The report, published by the charity Save the Children and the University of York, finds that while some areas of the U.K. have virtually no child poverty, the proportion of children living below the poverty line exceeds 90 percent in other areas. That, says the authors, puts Britain in the dubious position of topping the child-poverty list among countries in the European Union.
No one part of the country was rated worst in every indicator of what the report defines as "the well-being of children." Scottish kids do best at school, but they also have the worst diets. Northern Ireland has the highest infant-mortality rates but the lowest incidence of teen pregnancy.
The authors stress that they are describing relative, not absolute, poverty. Poverty in Britain, the authors say, means not having three meals a day, a warm coat in winter, or shoes that fit properly.
Susan Elsley from Save the Children Scotland said poverty in the U.K. is usually defined as having to live off less than 60 percent of the median income. But she said it's about more than just money. "It's about all the kinds of things you don't have access to in your everyday lives. So it could be about services you don't get, the opportunities for your voice to be heard, and opportunities for children to take part in everyday activities that are available to children from better-off families," Elsley said.
The report found a high correlation between single-parent families and child poverty. And Britain's teen-pregnancy rate -- although it has dropped in recent years -- is still the highest in Western Europe.
Poverty also tends to be concentrated in pockets of the country, often in the run-down public housing estates on the outskirts of large cities.
Simply living in these places can affect children's health, too, the authors say. High crime or vandalism rates tend to deter businesses from setting up shop. And what local stores there are tend to stock unhealthy, filling foods, instead of fresh produce. "The report that we published this week did show that children in Scotland have the worst diet of any in the U.K., and some of that is attributed to children living in poverty and the fact that they don't have enough money to buy the right kind of food. And they don't necessarily have access to the right kind of shops where they live. So although it might not mean there isn't a situation where they don't have enough food to put in their mouths every day, children are definitely living on a poor diet, which then impacts on their health," Elsley said.
The report has been met with some skepticism. Some suggest part of the problem lies with parents who don't have their priorities right, parents who spend their income on luxuries while their children suffer. "If there are children that are poor in the U.K. in comparison with other children, that is a disgrace in a society which ought to be able to ensure the best start of all children. I don't think it's about [irresponsible] parents at all. It's about the fact that some families in the U.K. don't have the same financial resources or the same access to other benefits that other families have," Elsley said.
One of the towns that came out worst in the survey is Bidston, just across the River Mersey from Liverpool in northwest England. The report says that nearly 90 percent of children there live in poverty.
Harry Smith is a local councilor for the area. He said Bidston's problems began with the decline of the shipbuilding industry in the late 1970s. Changes in the transporting of sea freight meant the further loss of manual jobs at the local docks.
At one point, he said, unemployment was so bad in the local housing estate that it was dubbed "Giro City," named for a "giro," or an unemployment-insurance check.
Smith said Bidston's problems were further compounded by bad housing. "You also had in Bidston an area where there was bad housing, and that caused a lot of people to leave Bidston as well, you see. And the housing was taken over to a large extent by single parents. Now, single parents were unemployed, so in that respect, unemployment figures in Bidston rose because there were a lot of single parents who came into the [constituency]," Smith said.
He acknowledged that Bidston's children are suffering in comparison with their luckier and wealthier compatriots. "It's a case of these children not getting the better-quality foods, not getting a warm house, perhaps not getting a warm fire, that kind of thing," Smith said.
Smith said that despite the report's bleak picture, Bidston's fortunes are beginning to turn around, thanks in part to government regeneration schemes and incentives to get single parents off welfare and into work.
And both Elsley and Smith say they're glad British Prime Minister Tony Blair has made eradicating child poverty one of his government's goals.
Blair on Wednesday delivered his annual child-poverty report, saying 1.4 million youngsters have been lifted out of poverty in the last five years. But achieving further progress could be tricky. Blair caused a stir when he said he is committed to reducing child poverty further by redistributing power, wealth, and opportunity.
Blair has until now steered clear of the "r" word, redistribution, because many voters fear it will mean tax increases and a return to the high taxing and spending patterns of previous Labor governments.
(The poverty report can be read at www.savethechildren.org.uk.)