The Government still has a long way to go in reducing child poverty and it needs to start producing results soon. Jon Slater reports
MILLIONS of children across the country will employ "pester power" to get the presents they want this Christmas. But, for the 4 million living in poverty, the festive season is likely to be more frugal.
For these children, Christmas can be a depressing time, their friends' presents and seasonal celebrations a reminder of their own poverty. However, if ministerial promises are to be believed, this heartache could soon become a thing of the past.
It is now nearly two years since Prime Minister Tony Blair announced that the Government intended to halve child poverty within the next 10 years and eliminate it altogether within 20.
Given the number of additional problems faced by schools in deprived areas, this is one target that should make school life easier rather than harder for teachers. But, although ministers are on course to meet most of the school targets, this one could prove difficult.
A report published last week by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation emphasises the scale of the task facing ministers. Monitoring Poverty uses 50 different indicators, covering living standards, education and health, to map levels of deprivation among adults and children.
It shows that during Labour's first two years in power, there was no decrease in the 4 million children living in households with less than half the average income. More positively, the proportion of children living in families where no adult is in paid work has fallen since 1997 from 17.9 per cent to 15.8 per cent.
But the stark fact that there are still 2 million children living in such families, with no parent bringing in a weekly wage, shows that there is still much to do.
However, the authors acknowledge that the latest figures on household incomes are from 19981999.
This means that the effect of government measures designed to boost the income of families, such as the minimum wage, minimum income guarantee and the working families tax credit, will not yet be shown.
But it is not just the income of the poorest families which are difficult to improve: "Significant health inequalities persist," says the report. "Premature deaths are becoming more geographically concentrated, children in the manual social clases are twice as likely to die in an accident as those in the non-manual classes, and the poorest two-fifths are one-and-a-half times as likely to be at risk of mental illness as the richest two-fifths."
The number of families living in bed-and-breakfast accommodation has increased since Labour came to power and, according to the report, "has regained the peak levels of the early 1990s".
Ministers have introduced a range of initiatives in an attempt to tackle these problems. The much trumpeted Sure Start scheme is designed to improve the health and life chances of the youngest children. From 2003, a new "integrated child credit" will be introduced in a further attempt to boost the incomes of families with children.
Ministers claim that the working families' tax credit has already boosted the incomes of 1.1m families by an average of pound;30 a week and that 1.2m children will be lifted out of poverty as a result of already announced measures to improve incomes.
Education, which is seen by ministers as probably the largest influence on children's life chances, is widely considered to be one of this Government's success stories, with the improvement of test scores for 11-year-olds and the reduction in the number of children excluded from school taking pride of place in the Government's annual audit of poverty published in September.
But other policies have run into problems. The pound;450m Children's Fund, which is intended to support the voluntary sector's efforts to lift children out of poverty, is due to start in April.
But it is beset by problems over what it should be used for and has become the subject of a power struggle between Education Secretary David Blunkett and the Chancellor, Gordon Brown.
With the election fast approaching, voters will struggle to judge the success or otherwise of the Government's crusade against child poverty. But ministers know that if they win a second term, their numerous policy initiatives will have to produce results.
Failure to do so will mean being named and shamed by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which plans to continue its annual reports on poverty.
Monitoring Poverty and Social Exclusion 2000 is compiled by the New Policy Institute and published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. The report is also available on the foundation's website: www.jrs.org.uk.