Almost one-in-four children will be living in poverty in Northern Ireland by 2020, a new report has said.
The warning comes after it emerged that over half of children growing up in poverty here live in working households.
A new Save the Children report published today claims youngsters have paid the highest price in the recession.
Their plight is exacerbated in Northern Ireland because wages lag behind the rest of the UK while the cost of necessities, such as food, fuel and childcare, is higher than in other regions.
Future welfare reform measures are also set to hit the poorest local families hardest by reducing social security benefits.
Fergus Cooper, Save the Children’s Northern Ireland chief, said: “This isn’t just a question of statistics; poverty blights children’s lives affecting their development, health and educational attainment,” he said. “Far too many of our children are living in cold and damp homes, without healthy and nutritious food and with stressed parents who can see no end to their situation.”
The report comes on the same day as a conference organised by the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action in Belfast.
Its head of public affairs, Lisa McElherron, said the aim was to to focus specifically on poverty in working households.
“For the first time, working households make up the majority of those in poverty,” she said.
“This raises concerns around issues such as low pay, the rise of part-time and temporary working, and the high cost of childcare.
“The conference will discuss the extent and causes of in-work poverty in Northern Ireland, and what should be done to address the problem.”
Save the Children’s report claims that the 2014 so-called ‘poverty premium’ — which represents how much more low income families pay for goods and services compared to middle-income families — now stands at £1,639 per year in Northern Ireland.
This ‘poverty premium’ includes, for example, the extra money needed to pay for items in instalments rather than all at once, such as a cooker or house insurance. New economic modelling commissioned by the international charity predicts that poverty could reach 38% (or almost one-in-four) by 2020.
The report illustrates the damaging effects of poverty on childhood, but also how this affects a child’s long-term future by increasing the chances of low attainment, with only a third of the poorest children going on to achieve five good GCSEs.
In 2011, the poorest households had more than twice the number of obese children compared to the richest. Mr Cooper said local politicians must take this as a wake-up call and stop “sleepwalking towards the highest levels of child poverty since records began while promising to eradicate it |completely”.
He added: “It’s time our politicians set out a concrete plan to get us back on track.”
The report used three indicators of low-income poverty — relative and absolute poverty, and a score measuring deprivation. Both relative and absolute poverty is 60% of the UK average, although the second is adjusted for inflation. In 2011/12 the relative poverty threshold for a couple with no children was an income of £256 per week before housing costs (BHC) from all sources. In 2011/12 the absolute poverty threshold for a couple with no children was an income of £264 per week BHC.
The third indicator measures material deprivation. This defines a child as poor if the household in which they live has an income below 70% of the UK average and has a ‘material deprivation score’ of 25 or more. This is calculated by asking questions such as whether a child has a warm winter coat, has a bike, or goes on an annual family holiday.
Maria lives with her partner and their seven-year-old daughter in Belfast.
She works part-time in the evenings. This allows her to pick her daughter up from school, go home and get her child's homework out of the way as soon as possible.
When her partner gets home from his job she then goes out to work.
They have experienced the rising cost of living particularly with their fuel costs over the winter period.
And she admitted that there were days when they were spending £10 a day on fuel when both electric and gas were taken into account.
Apart from her partner working full-time, he also drives a taxi at the weekend and works extra hours to cover unexpected costs.
"I always hope we can manage, but we have some low weeks and some good weeks," Maria said.
"Both myself and my partner work and I realise that there are some people who are much worse off than us."
Donna lives with her partner and two children, aged five and two, in Belfast.
Her ambition is to get her youngest child settled into playgroup and then get a part-time job.
She said that low pay, childcare costs and availability are all a problem. The rising cost of food and heating are a worry.
Donna recently switched electricity providers in a bid to save money. Special occasions are another added pressure.
Donna explained that she makes cutbacks in the house so the children don't go without.
"We don't forgo food or heat because they are essential but we deprive ourselves of other things," she said. "I would love to work, but when the tax credit people worked out the money based on me working 16 hours per week it was much of a muchness and I may even be worse off.
"I always feel as though I have to explain myself to other people who think if you don't work, you're lazy."