By Lorraine Barrett
Tackling child poverty remains one of the biggest challenges facing Wales and the Welsh Assembly.
Currently, 28% of children in Wales live in relative poverty and one in ten children lives in severe poverty, where their families cannot afford to buy the most basic of necessities.
The Welsh Assembly Government has made tackling child poverty one of its top priorities and nearly £6,000 was spent on every child in Wales during 2006-007 and this figure is projected to rise to £7,100 by 2010-11.
Whilst statistics relating to poverty may provoke sentiments of alarm, sympathy or anger, we cannot fully understand their significance without exploring the effect it has on a child’s life, which can be both profound and devestating.
Poverty impacts on children’s health in almost all aspects of their lives. From having to eat cheaper, less nutritious food to living in damp homes and suffering from respiratory problems, children born into poverty are at an increased risk of suffering poor health from an early age.
Links have also been made between living in overcrowded or poor standard homes and mental health difficulties, such as anxiety or depression.
Poor mental or physical health can lead to a child’s enthusiasm for education and learning being reduced; indeed a child’s experience of school can be severely hampered by poverty.
The Welsh Assembly Government has tried to highlight the importance of fitness and health amongst our young by introducing free swimming in Local Authority owned pools during school holidays.
Whilst education is free, several additional costs, such as school uniform and transport, lead families to having to pay significant sums to ensure their child is able to attend school.
To counter the costs of schooling the Welsh Assembly Government has introduced some important initiatives.
In 2004, a free school breakfast scheme for primary school children was rolled out to tackle poverty related under-nourishment and improve learning capacity.
A year later, the School Uniform Grant was piloted to help meet the costs for lower income families.
Perhaps poverty’s greatest effect on a child’s experience of school, however, is stigmatisation.
A consequence of such stigmatisation can mean a child becoming detached from society. The detrimental effect on a child’s confidence, as well as on their perception of equal opportunity, can lead to a sense of isolation and reluctance to engage with others.
Welsh Labour wants to ensure children are not stigmatized at school because of their background or circumstances. Measures to tackle this include introducing a statutory requirement for head teachers and governing bodies to have a policy to prevent all forms of bullying among pupils
Welsh Labour has promoted the annual Anti-Bullying Week which seeks to highlight issues around bullying and to inspire local authorities, schools, parents and young people themselves to join together to stamp out bullying.
Even a child born into poverty who possesses the will to fully participate in both school and community life can find his opportunities curtailed since joining local sports clubs or staying for after school clubs incurs additional costs and places an additional burden on a child’s family.
In response, we have fulfilled our 2007 manifesto promise to introduce free access to museums and galleries to ensure that cost is not a barrier to sports and leisure pursuits for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
We have created the Children’s Commissioner for Wales – the first Commissioner of its kind in the UK. The role of the Commissioner is to act as an independent advocate for children and young people in Wales; championing their cause, and promoting their rights and welfare.
And there are also more than 23,000 extra childcare places in Wales since 1999 and all children in Wales have access to free part-time education nursery place from the term following their third birthday.
The challenge facing Assembly Members is to break the chain of child poverty; to remove those who from an early age suffer from poverty from the vicious cycle it creates.
Clearly, this is no easy task. However, much has already been done by the Welsh Assembly since its inception a decade ago. Thanks to action taken by the Welsh Assembly, there has been an 18% fall, from 27% to 19%, in the levels of child poverty since 1999, ensuring that thousands of children have been saved from the plight of poverty and the health, education and social stigmatisation issues described above.
If the Welsh Assembly Government is to achieve its target of eradicating child poverty by 2020, both significant investment and political will must continue to be made.
It is for this reason it has taken steps such as investing £31m this year, rising to £36m by 2010/11, towards the Flying Start programme which includes free child healthcare for two-year-olds as well as health visits for Wales’ most deprived areas.
The Welsh Assembly Government spends over a fifth of its annual budget on children. As with the statistics outlined at the beginning, these statistics are meaningless without an understanding of their impact.
The investment which is going into tackling child poverty means that children in the nation’s most deprived areas will benefit from better healthcare, better education and more opportunities to engage in both school and community life.