Opinion

Executive must find the vision and courage to tackle child poverty’s long tail - The Irish News view

Stormont’s response to poverty has been poor and patchy

female feet in socks and brown teddy bear on the floor in a dark room
There are sharp differences in health and education outcomes for children who experience poverty compared to their better off peers. The Executive urgently needs an anti-poverty strategy (Victoria Kotlyarchuk /Getty Images)

One of the most dispiriting monuments to Stormont’s dysfunction is a stubbornly high level of child poverty. Around one-in-five children live in relative poverty, with up to 9% in homes that cannot afford basic goods and essential activities.

It is disturbing that in the midst of a cost of living crisis neither the Executive nor the civil service has got to grips with inequalities which have profound implications for the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in society.



These are perhaps most alarming in health and education, as an Audit Office report into the Executive’s handling of child poverty sets out. By the age of three, for example, children from low-income families have heard on average 30 million fewer words and have half the vocabulary of their peers from better-off homes. This gap only widens as children get older.

One of the most dispiriting monuments to Stormont's dysfunction is a stubbornly high level of child poverty. Around one-in-five children live in relative poverty, with up to 9% in homes that cannot afford basic goods and essential activities.
It is disturbing that in the midst of a cost of living crisis neither the Executive nor the civil service has got to grips with inequalities which have profound implications for the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in society.
These are perhaps most alarming in health and education, as an Audit Office report into the Executive's handling of child poverty sets out. By the age of three, for example, children from low-income families have heard on average 30 million fewer words and have half the vocabulary of their peers from better-off homes. This gap only widens as children get older.
It means that by the time they start primary school, children from lower income families are already up to a year behind those classed as being from middle income homes. Children eligible for free school meals are twice as likely to leave school with no GCSEs compared to more affluent classmates.
While there has been little change in obesity rates for P1 children in least deprived areas over the last five years, the rate has more than doubled, from 45% to 93%, in the most deprived districts.
The cumulative effect of this challenging start to life means that those in the most deprived category will live between 11 and 15 years less than their peers in the least deprived cohort.
Despite an abundance of plans and policies, Stormont has failed to make a significant impact on child poverty. There has been a lot of strategies but not much substance.
Comptroller and Auditor General Dorinnia Carville paints a picture which shows pockets of good work being done within Stormont departments. But a lack of joined-up working means the interventions have not achieved their full potential; "Siloed working leads to siloed interventions," says Ms Carville.
The two-year absence of a functioning Executive due to the DUP's senseless boycott has further hampered Stormont's response.
Ms Carville points out that there are considerable costs linked to child poverty, with annual estimates of between £825 million and £1 billion.
The Executive has now shifted its focus from child poverty to an overarching anti-poverty strategy. This needs to be a matter of urgency, with ring-fenced investment and targets in areas from childcare, so parents can better access work, to early years schemes.
We wait to see whether this Executive has the vision and courage needed to take the long-term approach essential to confront poverty, and help build a healthier, happier, better educated and fairer community.
P1 children from lower income families are already up to a year behind those classed as being from middle income homes (Shangarey/Getty Images)

It means that by the time they start primary school, children from lower income families are already up to a year behind those classed as being from middle income homes. Children eligible for free school meals are twice as likely to leave school with no GCSEs compared to more affluent classmates.

While there has been little change in obesity rates for P1 children in least deprived areas over the last five years, the rate has more than doubled, from 45% to 93%, in the most deprived districts.

The cumulative effect of this challenging start to life means that those in the most deprived category will live between 11 and 15 years less than their peers in the least deprived cohort.

It is disturbing that in the midst of a cost of living crisis neither the Executive nor the civil service has got to grips with inequalities which have profound implications for the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in society

Despite an abundance of plans and policies, Stormont has failed to make a significant impact on child poverty. There has been a lot of strategies but not much substance.

Dorinnia Carville said more work is needed to protect water sources
Dorinnia Carville, Comptroller and Auditor General (Liam McBurney/PA)

Comptroller and Auditor General Dorinnia Carville paints a picture which shows pockets of good work being done within Stormont departments. But a lack of joined-up working means the interventions have not achieved their full potential; “Siloed working leads to siloed interventions,” says Ms Carville.

The two-year absence of a functioning Executive due to the DUP’s senseless boycott has further hampered Stormont’s response.



Ms Carville points out that there are considerable costs linked to child poverty, with annual estimates of between £825 million and £1 billion.

The Executive has now shifted its focus from child poverty to an overarching anti-poverty strategy. This needs to be a matter of urgency, with ring-fenced investment and targets in areas from childcare, so parents can better access work, to early years schemes.

We wait to see whether this Executive has the vision and courage needed to take the long-term approach essential to confront poverty, and help build a healthier, happier, better educated and fairer community.