Black lives matter, particularly the lives of children. Poor children are more likely to be behind in school than their wealthier peers, have reported lower sense of well-being, have poorer health outcomes and even employment difficulties in adulthood. But we don’t talk enough about the fact that some children in black and minority ethnic (BME) families are more likely to experience poverty.
As Marcus Rashford rightly pointed out in his moving BBC Breakfast interview on free school meal vouchers, 47 per cent of Black children are living in poverty, compared to 26 per cent of White British children.1 They are some of the poorest children in the UK. And among those most at risk of poverty are children from Bangladeshi and Pakistani families, where child poverty rates are a shocking 60 and 54 per cent respectively. When we break down rates by local authority, whether that’s rates of children accessing Free School Meals or child poverty rates, we see constituencies with significant ethnic minority populations positioned at the top of the list. In the 17 local authorities with the highest rates of child poverty, BME children make up half of the young population.
The coronavirus pandemic brought into sharper focus the indispensability of low-paid key workers. They have kept the country fed and moving; cared for us and our families. We know their faces now. But this work does not pay enough to protect people from poverty. Ethnic minorities are more likely to be in low-paid work and are overrepresented in the most precarious parts of the economy. They are also more likely to live in a household with children, and as a result they are more likely to experience in-work poverty. The social security system, that should provide income security and prevent poverty, is not pulling its weight. In fact, the changes made to the tax and social security system since 2010 have left black and minority ethnic families on low incomes with less in their pockets. The two-child limit and the benefit cap hit these families disproportionately.
These long-standing inequalities have been exacerbated by the lockdown. Sector shutdowns and home working have hit the lowest-paid workers the hardest. Those on the lowest incomes are the least likely to work in sectors ceasing operations under lockdown and the least able to work from home. They have therefore been more exposed to the virus, leading to higher death rates even when you adjust for age, geographic and socio-economic factors and self-reported health. BME families also tend to be relatively young - younger workers are more likely to have lost their jobs and to have experienced reduced earnings during lockdown, and risk long-term scarring of their opportunities from a collapsing labour market.
And poverty contributes to the risk of ill health, with Covid-19 related deaths much higher in the most deprived areas. What’s more, while the richest fifth of families have been able to save during the pandemic, the poorest fifth who spend more than half of their income on necessities such as groceries, housing and utilities, have not been able to. So the raised risk of poverty and deprivation is strongly associated with higher death rates and also with the hardship low-income families are reporting under lockdown. The likely risk of rising child poverty among low-income BME families during the pandemic seems obvious.
Sir Michael Marmot, told the BBC this week that much of the increased health risk to black and Asian people from Covid-19 was caused by social and economic deprivation. The patterns we’ve seen throughout the pandemic – a disproportionately high number of BME people dying from the virus – track existing social determinants of health. These have been known about since Marmot’s breakthrough report on the social determinants of health back in 2010 and later updated in 2020. In it, he argued that there is a social gradient in health – the lower a person’s social position, the worse his or her health – and that health inequalities result from social inequalities. In his 2020 report he showed that for the first time in more than 100 years life expectancy has failed to increase across the country, and for the poorest 10 per cent of women it has actually declined. The more deprived the area, the shorter the life expectancy. This social gradient has become steeper over the last decade and child poverty has increased. Hardly surprising then that the experience of Covid-19 has been, to put it mildly, uneven.
In our recent book, 2020 Vision: ending child poverty for good, Omar Khan argues that: ‘in terms of both analysis and policy, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that ethnic minority child poverty is simply viewed as a non-issue’. Where are the policies designed to address the stark facts? And the disproportionate impact of policies like the benefit cap and two-child policy is not denied. So does that mean that policy-makers find it acceptable? Even child poverty campaigners, he argues, often fail to mention the issue of race in those areas with the highest child poverty rates. We need to address, for example, the structural inequalities and discrimination in the labour market, greater rates of unemployment and low pay, housing costs and overcrowding for starters.
Rising child poverty is a national scandal, but does the lack of focus on such a huge problem just reflect a lack of public sympathy for BME children? Or does it just reflect wider public attitudes that blame people for their own inequality? The challenge for us all is to put these issues at the top of our agenda – child poverty is not colour blind, so our campaign to end it must not be either – otherwise we will not find the right solutions.
- 1. AHC. DWP (2019) Households below average income 1994/95 – 2017/18, Table 4.5db, London: DWP