Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

Low pay is the greatest problem we face

The fact that 96,000 children in Northern Ireland — almost one in every four — is officially living in poverty is a shocking statistic. But what makes it even more startling is that this was the figure in 2006/7, well before the current economic crisis began to bite.

When one considers that the number of people out of work has increased by 62% in the last year, seriously diminishing those household incomes, the level of child poverty is bound to be increasing.

More worryingly still, we have not yet plumbed the depths of the recession. Government Minister Ed Balls recently forecast that the effects of the recession — which he described as the worst for 100 years — may be felt for the next 15 years.

It has to be admitted that there is no family in Northern Ireland which cannot afford to feed its children.

But that is not the measure of poverty.

Officially, children living in a family with an income of under £16,224 after housing costs are classified as living in poverty.

While they may not experience hunger, there are many children who are living on poor diets and who lose out on the material things and social activities that their peers

take for granted. Think of the anguish of parents, who for no fault of their own, have to explain to their families why they have to do without.

There are a number of factors which contribute to poverty.

Lack of employment, surprisingly, is not necessarily one of those factors. It is estimated by children’s charity Barnardos that almost half of the children living in poverty come from homes where at least one parent is working.

The problem in those cases is low income. Northern Ireland has the worst record in the UK for low pay. Inadequate levels of benefits, or poor uptake of them, is another contributory cause of poverty.

For those on the breadline, the sight of grovelling bankers this week trying to squirm out of their responsibilities for the economic crisis must have been particularly galling.

To add insult to injury one bank executive, Eric Daniels, chief executive of Lloyds Banking Group, dismissed his annual salary of £1m as modest.

It was those at the top of the financial sector who precipitated the current global crisis through their unfettered pursuit of money.

Some may have lost their jobs but none have lost their wealth.

Many of those who have lost, or will lose, their jobs as a result of the credit crunch will not have that financial cushion. New poor are being created.

The effects of poverty are wide ranging and long lasting.

People living in deprived households or areas generally have poorer educational qualifications, perpetuating the cycle of poverty. They need extra assistance to break that cycle.

Lone parents need high quality but affordable childcare; educational outcomes need to be improved; the Northern Ireland Executive must ensure that those eligible receive all their benefits — every year there is a shortfall by claimants.

The Executive has signed up to the task of reducing the number of children in poverty.

This must remain among its priorities, no matter what the competing demands.

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