There is a public health crisis in this country and it’s leaving our most disadvantaged children at risk of lifelong poor health.
The gap in health outcomes between rich and poor children is stark. A new report by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and the Child Poverty Action Group reaffirms that poverty significantly contributes to children’s ill health. Many children from the poorest and most deprived homes are falling far behind their more privileged peers across multiple health outcomes.
Childhood obesity is an area in which the gap between affluent children and those from disadvantaged backgrounds is especially profound. By age five the poorest 20 per cent of children are almost twice as likely to be obese as the richest fifth; at age 11, obesity among this group is three times as likely.
Labour has pledged to ban adverts on junk food before the 9pm watershed, whilst the Conservatives who previously introduced a long term childhood obesity plan, have re-iterated their commitment to put revenue from the sugar tax into funding for school sports. Separately, the Liberal Democrats have pledged to put an end to ‘period poverty’ in schools by providing sanitary products free of charge.
Whilst there is evidence that all these policies could have a positive impact, if we are really serious about tackling health inequality, we need a holistic approach to improving support for children and families. With cuts to councils’ public health budgets, and schools under similar financial strain, this targeted support is increasingly difficult for local services to provide.
NCB’s report Poor Beginnings shows there is significant local variation in outcomes among the poorest children. Partnership working between local authorities and health bodies can be effective in helping the poorest families improve children’s health, but a forthcoming NCB report on approaches to reducing obesity shows that while some local areas are tackling the issue effectively, resource constraints are a major barrier.
A rising obesity rate is just one consequence of childhood poverty. Tooth decay and admission to A&E following injury are also common aspects of poverty-related ill health in children. It goes without saying that health inequality is closely related to other challenges. Specifically, we know from the Social Mobility Commission that poor children are significantly less likely to be ready for school at age five than their peers. NCB’s Lambeth’s Early Action Partnership (LEAP) is an example of a local programme taking a holistic approach to improving children’s health and development.
Much welcome attention has recently been paid to the crisis in children and young people’s mental health but we have heard little on how a new government will tackle overall childhood health inequality. We hope the next government will get serious about tackling health poverty and take action to ensure every child has an opportunity to grow up healthy and happy.