It’s nearly a year since the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health first joined forces with Child Poverty Action Group to explore the links between poverty and children’s health. We know that four million children in the UK live in poverty, and we know that there is a demonstrable link between social disadvantage and poor health outcomes, but we wanted to look beyond the data and discover what our members – paediatricians – were seeing on the frontline.
Our survey garnered over 250 responses from paediatricians up and down the country. The results are sobering. Questioned on a number of indicators including food insecurity, poor housing, homelessness and financial stress, an overwhelming majority of respondents said that they felt poverty and low income contribute significantly to ill health in the children they treat.
Housing problems and homelessness were a concern for two-thirds of members surveyed – as one respondent starkly put it, “overcrowded, damp or unsuitable housing amongst our patients is the rule rather than an exception’. From mould and damp to vermin infestations, babies sharing cots due to lack of space, and disabled children unable to be discharged because of inaccessible accommodation, our paediatricians are seeing the alarming results of the housing crisis first-hand.
Where children are already unwell, poverty makes the situation worse. Colleagues share anecdotes of children missing appointments due to financial issues – parents not being able to afford petrol, public transport costs or even phone credit to call and reschedule. The stress and worry this causes cannot be overestimated, with the day-to-day difficulties and stigma of poverty placing families under huge emotional strain. Children themselves are by no means immune to stress of poverty – more than half of survey respondents agree that financial stress and worry contribute “very much” to the ill health of children they work with, with one paediatrician noting that “the biggest impact of poverty on the children and parents I encounter is insecurity, inferiority and stress.”
It is shameful that our paediatricians are witnessing these things in the 21st century, and what’s worse is that half of our respondents believe the situation is deteriorating even further. We are in the midst of election season – an opportune time for all our political parties to develop new policies and make commitments to tackle the unacceptable levels of child poverty in this country. The next Government, whoever they may be, must take action through the restoration of child poverty targets, the adoption of a “child health in all policies” approach to decision-making, and a reversal of cuts to public health services and universal credit. These policies should be underpinned by a wider strategy for reducing child poverty and promoting health. Only through concerted and urgent action on social inequalities can a healthy future be secured for infants, children and young people across the UK.