Teenage mums not to blame for high levels of Plymouth child poverty, says academic
"FECKLESS" young women and "unemployable" fathers are not to blame for child poverty, says a city academic.
The real problems are low wages and unemployment, Dr Mike Sheaff, associate professor of sociology at Plymouth University, said.
Dr Sheaff – responding to a recent letter in The Herald – said the stereotypes about teenage mothers and the long-term unemployed were not supported by the evidence.
And he warned that the Government's reform of the welfare system would make child poverty worse in Plymouth.
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Last year there were 10,380 Plymouth under-16s living in poverty – 23 per cent of all the city's children. This number has remained stubbornly around the same mark for at least the past four years.
The national figure is 21.9 per cent, and the worst in the country is 50.9 per cent.
Children are defined as living in poverty if their family income is less than 60 per cent of the national median, adjusted to take account of the number of children in a household.
According to the charity Barnardos, a family with two adults and two children needs to have £352 a week to live above the poverty line.
"There are trends already evident which will increase child poverty and it is even more urgent not to be distracted by unhelpful stereotypes," Dr Sheaff said.
Joblessness in Plymouth is fractionally lower than the national average, but Dr Sheaff said the real problem was a low-wage economy, which would be more vulnerable to benefits changes.
Nationally about 20 per cent of people are considered low-paid. According to South West TUC figures in Plymouth the proportion is 28 per cent.
The second biggest factor in child poverty is joblessness, Dr Sheaff said, and only about six per cent of benefits claimants have drug and alcohol problems.
"Last year there was a bit of a blip in teenage pregnancies, but generally numbers are falling," he said.
Only about 200 Plymouth girls under 18 get pregnant each year, and national statistics suggest that only about half of them go on to give birth.
And lone parents are not the culprits they may be painted, with about 60 per cent going out to work.
"As a parent myself I take my hat off to them because it's such hard work. Even being a parent when there are two of you can be difficult at times," Dr Sheaff said.
He called for people to be paid a living wage.
"Increasing the wages of some of the lowest-paid would not have a negative impact on the public purse because it would reduce welfare entitlement."
The consequence of low pay was that, in effect, the taxpayer subsidises business.
Dr Sheaff said the respected Institute for Fiscal Studies estimated that the Government's new Universal Credit should reduce relative poverty by 450,000 children and 600,000 working-age adults across the country.
But at the same time the IFS expects the reduction to be more than offset by other changes to personal taxes and state benefits.
Dr Sheaff said: "There is going to be a bigger change in Plymouth than elsewhere. Paradoxically, what appears to be reducing child poverty levels now is that overall living standards have fallen."
This is because child poverty is based on median, rather than average incomes. The median is the middle of a series. If the average, or mean, was used then the figures would be badly skewed by the very richest families.
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