As any parent will confirm, having children is a marvellous and rewarding adventure – a long and winding journey that includes both laughter and tears and which will completely change your life. But it is also a journey that costs a lot of money.
Those us lucky enough to be financially comfortable will not be daunted by this familiar observation. But what about that section of society frequently dubbed ‘Breadline Britain’ by the media?
A new study from the charity Child Poverty Action Group takes an illuminating look at some of the figures involved. Apparently, the minimum cost of raising a child to the age of 18 is £143,000, or around £150 per week. Of course, this figure is only an approximation, averaged across different ages, and is only a minimum, including such basics as childcare and housing. In reality, any family living above the breadline will actually spend more – perhaps much more.
The study also shines a spotlight onto the steep cost of childcare, that frequently uncomfortable accompaniment to working parenthood. Nowadays childcare accounts for well over a third of the costs of raising a child – as much as £60,000.
The basic costs involved in raising a child – in particular childcare – are rising faster than inflation, reports the study, while at the same time benefits for the poorest are being cut. For example, child benefits levels have been frozen for two years and cover only 18-20 per cent of typical childhood living costs. This is pitifully low by any reckoning and the situation will become even worse by 2014, when the current sums will have lost 10 per cent of the value thanks to inflation. Meanwhile, tax credit support for childcare costs was cut by 12.5 per cent last year.
Combine these figures with stagnating wages in a weak economy and the picture begins to look a little bleak. If you are in work and reasonably well off, you will be able to get by, perhaps with a groan and a grumble and the occasional bit of belt-tightening. But families dependent on benefits will find it almost impossible to make ends meet. To quote the charity:
“State support fails to ensure basic physical needs are met, leaving many families lacking sufficient funds for a healthy diet for the whole family and living in unhealthy housing conditions.”
According to the report, even those families on the highest available benefits will receive only between 73 and 94 per cent of the costs of a child’s basic needs, and this shortfall will widen with each subsequent child.
I quote: “Parents react by spending less money on themselves; in some cases parents will even skip meals so that their children don’t go without.”
I find that a heartbreaking image. The housing queue-jumping dole mum living a comfortable life on benefits is a popular tabloid cliché but the reality seems to be that having children leaves those on benefits decisively worse off.
Even getting a job does not guarantee a way out for parents on the breadline. A full time job on the National Minimum Wage will still leave an alarming 11-18 per cent shortfall when it comes to meeting their child’s basic needs.
These figures make a depressing read for anyone who cares about the fabric of the society around them. Imagine growing up in a family which can never afford to take even a modest holiday, where you cannot afford to go to birthday parties, or to take part in any school activities? Chris Goulden of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation which funded the study, predicts “serious consequences for the development for such children”.
For decades, while arguments have raged about the politics and causes of poverty, we have taken it for granted that the children of the poorest families in society are wholly innocent and deserve support and fair opportunities to succeed. It is sad to see consensus seemingly unravelling. Drastic benefit cuts and declining employment opportunities can only deepen the misery and alienation of thousands of families unable to take part in the society around them.
Well-known charity Save The Children has just launched its first domestic appeal, to raise funds for children in the UK whose families can barely make ends meet.
As a family lawyer, perhaps I am more aware than most of the central role played by the family in society. If the children of the poorest are given a fair chance and allowed to grow up happy and healthy members of the society around them, then we will all benefit. If they are not, then I cannot help but suspect we will all end up paying the price.