4 January 2022

Labour’s figures sound alarming, but race and prosperity in Britain is far from black and white


New research produced by the Labour Party has found notable racial and ethnic disparities in child poverty rates in Britain. 

The findings are certainly stark. More than half of black children in the UK are growing up in poverty (53%) – making them twice as likely to be growing up poor compared to their white peers (26%). Overall, 27% of all children in the UK were living in poor households in 2010-11, compared to 31% now.

Shadow Women and Equalities Secretary Anneliese Dodds, whose office produced the new analysis, says ‘Conservative incompetence and denialism about the existence of structural racism are driving black children into poverty’. The answer, she claims, is a ‘new race equality act to tackle structural racial inequality at source’. Dr Halima Begum, chief executive of racial equality thinktank the Runnymede Trust, said the figures were ’cause for considerable concern’ and that ‘Black children face racism and poverty’. 

As so often, however, a startling headline finding masks a great deal of complexity. As a general point, it’s far too reductive to refer to a ‘black British’ community. There are notable differences between the UK’s Black-Caribbean and Black-African populations – with a great deal of diversity contained within the latter grouping (ranging from established Christian migrants of Nigerian origin to more recently arrived Muslim refugees from Somalia). Likewise, among white Britons, there are well-documented economic and social differences between the white-British, white-Irish, and Gypsy/Traveller ethnic categories.

And the wider picture hammers yet another nail in the coffin of the redundant ‘BAME’ acronym. For a start, the ethnic group with the lowest level of child poverty in the UK is not white, but Chinese – significantly lower than the white mainstream at 12%. This is a remarkable drop from the figure a decade ago, which was 47%. The marked differences in outcomes for different ethnic groups is hard to square with theories of ‘white privilege’ which crudely ‘racialise’ complex forms of socio-economic disadvantage – not least as 68% of children in poverty in the UK, some 2.9 million people, are white.

Another demonstration of the problem of overly broad ethnic categories is the ‘South Asian’ label. In the UK, 27% of Indian-origin children live in a ‘poor household’ – a figure which rises to 55% and 61% for children of Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin respectively. Indeed, the Bangladeshi ethnic group has the highest level of child poverty in the entire analysis.

But while Labour are keen to discuss ‘structural inequalities’ that underpin the very mixed picture of prosperity in Britain, the party seems altogether warier of two profoundly important factors: family and culture. Discussing ethnic differences in family structure and cultural norms may not fit in with the identitarian script when it comes to child poverty, but they are undoubtedly influential in such outcomes.

As CapX’s editor-in-chief Robert Colvile has written, ‘one of the great puzzles of the British political system is that family is often a non-topic’. As Robert argues, the tax system does little to incentivise marriage and we seem to accept sky-high childcare costs ‘not as a national scandal but as an unfortunate fact of life’.

Though not the be-all-and-end-all, whether or not one belongs to a loving and stable family unit remains one of the most influential determinants in the shaping of life chances and personal development – irrespective of one’s racial background, ethnic heritage or religious affiliation. A growing body of research by organisations such as the Centre for Social Justice shows how integral family structure is to young people’s personal development, with a two-parent household headed by a married couple being the ‘social model’ most strongly linked with childhood family-life stability. Equality policy-making needs to recognise this and move away from obsessions with ‘protected characteristics’.

The disparity among different groups when it comes to family structure are extremely striking. According to recent Office for National Statistics data, only 6% of Indian-origin children (up to the age of 15 years) live in lone-parent households. This increases to 19% for their white-British peers, 43% for children of Black African origin, and an astonishing 63% for children of Black Caribbean heritage. Of course, none of this is an invitation to stigmatise single parents – overwhelmingly women – who face extraordinary challenges bringing up their kids, and there should perhaps be a greater focus on men who have fathered children but have failed to take on the duties and responsibilities that come with parenthood. 

There are other factors that feed into racial and ethnic disparities in child poverty – one being residential distribution. Compared to most ethnic minorities, British-Chinese people are widely dispersed across Britain. Meanwhile, six in ten Black people living in the UK live in ultra-competitive London, with its high-cost economy and dysfunctional housing market.

There are also cultural factors at play within some communities. When looking at the high child poverty rates in Britain’s Bangladeshi and Pakistani ethnic groups, conservative gender norms contribute towards depressingly low levels of female economic activity and relatively large family sizes. While 57% of women aged 16-64 years in a merged Pakistani-Bangladeshi category were recently classified as economically inactive, this dropped to 28% for women of Indian origin.

As well as focusing on where things are going wrong, however, we should also recognise the factors that have contributed to positive socio-economic outcomes among certain groups. Perhaps because of their relatively low numbers, British people of Chinese descent are oft-overlooked in debates on race and inequality. From my own experience of the British-Chinese population in my hometown of Luton, they have always placed an exceptionally high value on education, both at school and beyond, combined with a pronounced emphasis on the importance of effort, resilience and determination.

That impression is certainly borne out in the data too: British-Chinese people have higher median hourly pay than white Britons (£15.38/hour and £12.49/hour respectively), and British-Chinese children are less likely than any other ethnic group to live in a poor household. It is also worth noting that pupils of Chinese descent are the highest-achieving ethnic group in England when it comes to ‘Attainment 8’ scores at GCSE. Theirs is an uplifting story of stable families, high levels of academic achievement and impressive economic outcomes that ought to be a cause for celebration.

Rather than solely focusing on the negatives and blaming economic deprivation on ‘structural racism’, we ought to focus on where things have gone right too – and put family and culture at the heart of the debate on prosperity.

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Dr Rakib Ehsan is a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society. His forthcoming book, 'Beyond Grievance', is available to pre-order on Amazon.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.