Intended for healthcare professionals

Opinion

Childhood poverty is rising in the UK, but the government continue to ignore it

BMJ 2022; 377 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.o872 (Published 01 April 2022) Cite this as: BMJ 2022;377:o872
  1. Maggie Rae, president,
  2. Jamie Carruthers, medical student
  1. Faculty of Public Health

Poverty is on the rise in the UK, with children among those most affected. But the chancellor’s recent spring statement made no mention of child poverty.

With mounting food, energy, and housing costs, UK household budgets are becoming increasingly stretched. This, combined with caps on many forms of financial support and benefits, places an added pressure on the most vulnerable low income households. An opportunity to support these families came in the form of the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s 2022 Spring Statement, but the support offered does little to target resources towards these groups.

Despite no official data from the intra-pandemic period, there is strong evidence that poverty is on the rise across the UK.1 Some groups have been well supported by financial initiatives during the pandemic, but others face a deeper, more entrenched poverty than before. Among the worst affected by poverty are children; one in three children live in poverty, rising to half of all children from single parent families.2 With childhood poverty come several other problems, including increased incidence of mental health problems, obesity, and reduced life expectancy.3

The Child Poverty Act 2010 set out legally binding targets for reduction of poverty by 2020. These targets were abolished after the 2015 general election by introduction of the Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016. This Act also revoked the government’s obligation to produce a Child Poverty Strategy and similar obligations for local authorities, thus removing any legal incentive for local or national government to address child poverty. Since then, poverty has been on the rise but no further significant legislative measures have been delivered to address it.

On the rise alongside poverty is childhood obesity, with rates at an all time high. The latest England National Child Measurement Programme figures showed an increase in overweight and obesity prevalence of 25% in children aged 4 to 5 over a 5 year period. The burden of obesity is not felt equally across society. Children aged 4 to 5 in the most deprived 10% of the population are 75% more likely to be overweight or obese than those in the most affluent 10%. Overweight and obesity prevalence in less affluent households is increasing at a faster rate than those less deprived households, exacerbating an already severe public health issue.

Reacting once obesity has already developed is too late. Preventative measures must be taken to effectively tackle the obesity epidemic in childhood. Obese children and adolescents are five times more likely to become obese adults than children of a healthy weight.4 With obesity comes problems such as diabetes mellitus, chronic pain, and cardiovascular disease.5 Even in childhood and adolescence, incidence of these comorbidities is greater in individuals with high BMIs than those of healthy weights.6 Without concentrated action, obesity prevalence is likely to continue rising, and today’s obese children will likely become tomorrow’s obese adults.

The business case for obesity prevention is clear. Obesity was a factor in over 1 million hospital admissions in 2019/20 and obesity directly costed the NHS £6.1 billion in 2014/15, though the wider cost to society is estimated at £27 billion. All these figures are predicted to rise substantially over coming years as obesity prevalence continues to rise. Coupling this financial burden with an overstretched and underfunded healthcare system, a new public health emergency is uncovered.

The argument for targeted prevention of childhood poverty and obesity is clear, both from a public health and an economic perspective. Indeed, by tackling childhood poverty one would likely reduce childhood obesity rates. It would also give children the tools to stay above the poverty line as adults. A first step would be recognition of the magnitude of the problem by the government.

The Chancellor’s 2022 Spring Statement outlined various economic and fiscal stimuli to ease rising costs of living; however, poverty is mentioned just twice, both times in the context of rising fuel prices, with child poverty not mentioned at all. The lack of consideration given to childhood poverty and its consequences poses grave concern from a public health perspective. Focused efforts in reaction to rising fuel prices were central to the statement but no attention has been paid to longer term contributors to poverty. As a percentage of household net income, the biggest gainers from this statement are the upper middle classes. The poorest households will benefit by only a fraction compared with wealthier households, both in real monetary terms and as a percentage of net income.

Recognising the severity of childhood poverty must be the government’s first action. Next, six years of lost focus on childhood poverty and legislative decay must be reversed if we are to address this key issue. In the context of significant increases in childhood poverty and obesity it is clear that current government strategy is ineffective. Close engagement and collaboration with public health leadership is required to better understand the factors contributing to these issues so that new, effective plans can be drawn up and implemented as soon as possible. Concentrated and unified national and local level efforts in government and healthcare are required.

Footnotes

  • Competing interests: none declared.

  • Provenance and peer review: not commissioned, not peer reviewed.

References