An unequal society… does it really matter?
Narrowing the gap in outcomes between children was a key driver of many of the Labour Government’s policies over the last ten years. The coalition Government has since taken up the cause of social mobility, setting its stall firmly in the arena of fairness – of closing the gap between the poorest and the rest because it’s the right thing to do.
A new UNICEF report comparing equality in children’s well-being ranks the UK in the bottom two-fifths of OECD countries alongside the Czech Republic and Slovakia. It shows that we allow more children to fall below the average level of national child well-being than other similar sized and developed countries such as France and Germany. It demonstrates clearly that the main reason for the UK’s poor performance is our lack of success in achieving equality in material well-being between children.
No-one could fail to welcome the coalition Government’s continuing commitment to ending child poverty by 2020, and to reducing the gap in outcomes between young children to support them to develop to their full potential. The pupil premium and the health premium are financial measures intended to address inequalities in outcomes, and the Government estimates that new welfare reforms will lift 350,000 children out of poverty. However, it is undeniable that children have been hit hard – and arguably hardest – by recent measures introduced by the Government to tackle the deficit, and it is equally clear that the full impact of these cuts on children is still to be seen.
The UNICEF report shows clearly that standing still in the face of significant rates of child poverty and inequality is not an option if we want to support every child to develop to their full potential. It shows that government interventions through investment, benefits and tax credits are essential in limiting the extent of child poverty. But it also shows that to make headway in these difficult economic times requires extra effort.
The moral arguments, the rights arguments, and the economic arguments for investing to reduce inequalities between children have all been eloquently made and don’t need to be repeated here. I agree with the Government – tackling inequality between children is the right thing to do. But what this report shows is that children can’t wait for an upturn in the economy before the Government acts. Inequalities in wealth, health and education are preventing children from enjoying the full extent of their rights now and limiting their aspirations for the future. And the UNICEF report is a snapshot of the “good times”. Even before the recession, disadvantaged children in the UK were falling behind their peers and 3.9 million children were living in poverty. Without positive action now, these children will simply fall further and further behind their peers as the cuts begin to bite. An unjust and unequal society such as this can never be one in which every child will thrive.