Every year, the End Child Poverty Coalition releases statistics on child poverty across the UK along with Loughborough University. The statistics released this year show that 22 per cent of children in Northern Ireland are living in poverty. Of these, 63 per cent live in families with at least one person in work. Clearly, having a parent in employment is not enough to prevent children from feeling the impact of the cost-of-living crisis. The authors of the ECP statistics state that the data was collected before the full impact of the cost-of-living crisis, meaning that the percentage of children in poverty is likely to have increased in 2023. 

An Escalating Crisis?

While child poverty is an issue across the UK, Northern Ireland is facing a unique situation in that there is no functioning devolved government. Civil servants have some powers to make decisions on day-to-day matters, but larger decisions (such as departmental budget changes, or new legislation) must be taken by elected Ministers. Parliament has the ability to legislate on such issues but the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris, believes that it is best for Northern Ireland to be governed by locally elected representatives. He is right, of course, but the Northern Ireland Executive collapsed in February 2022, with no regional government operating since then.

The lack of government resulted in Heaton-Harris stepping in to set the Northern Ireland budget for 2023-24 in April. The resulting budget received a cold reception in Northern Ireland as the majority of government departments have had funding cuts from last year. These cuts will directly impact children in poverty, as the Department of Education has had its budget reduced. This includes reduced funding for special educational needs coordinators in schools, and the School Holiday Food Grant has been cut too.

In June, a group of academics in Northern Ireland released their ‘rapid response’ report, which investigated the impacts of the recent budget introduced by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. One section highlights the links between poverty and educational achievement for children. Children in poverty are feeling the full effects of the cost-of-living crisis, which is having a knock-on effect on their education. Other critics of the budget include the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which has called for a revised budget, a proposal supported by the Children’s Law Centre in Northern Ireland.

Whilst the Northern Ireland government is being disrupted by party politics focusing on the Windsor Framework, the new budget signals that children living in poverty will continue to struggle through the cost-of-living crisis. The Secretary of State denies that his budget is negatively impacting children, but the large-scale cuts will only deepen the levels of poverty in Northern Ireland. Children will be directly impacted by budget cuts for the Department of Education as well as any general cuts that will lower the standard of public services provided. At a time when costs are continuing to rise, public services are essential to help lighten the burden, especially for children.

An Exodus of Young People

Northern Ireland has long suffered a ‘brain drain’ of young people, many of whom leave the region (usually for university) without returning. The reasons are usually economic. There are often more career options in other parts of the UK, Ireland, and further afield. Young people also express frustration with the government in Northern Ireland, which is plagued by instability and ongoing division along community lines. This can be seen in recent research from Pivotal, a think tank based in Northern Ireland. It finds that only 10.5 per cent of young people believe that politicians are successfully representing issues that matter to them. As the budget cuts come into full effect, children and young people will only get more frustrated with the region and the subsequent ‘brain drain’ is only likely to continue.

Northern Ireland needs to retain its young people in order to improve and become a flourishing society. We need to provide children with the best possible start in life, and that means ensuring they receive a good education regardless of their family’s financial status. With the cost-of-living crisis in full swing and the harsh budget cuts set to be implemented, child poverty in Northern Ireland is likely to rise in 2023 and beyond. Campaigners have been calling for the budget to be reviewed and for the Executive and Assembly to be restored to mitigate the impacts. However, these institutions have previously been suspended for prolonged periods of time. It could be a long wait before the region can address the issues surrounding child poverty.

DISCLAIMER: The articles on our website are not endorsed by, or the opinions of Shout Out UK (SOUK), but exclusively the views of the author.