Between 1979 and 1997, the number of children living in families with below half the average income in Britain jumped from 9 per cent to 34 per cent when housing costs were taken into account.
The Department of Social Security, which published the figures, said the change was due partly to rising unemployment and the growth in single parent families. The proportion of children living in homes without a working parent rose from 9 to 23 per cent, and the number without a full- time earner from 18 to 32 per cent.
Children's charities and pressure groups yesterday called for a "national anti-poverty strategy" after a speech last night in which Sir Donald Acheson, the chairman of a government inquiry into health inequalities, warned that the poor were going hungry and a lack of nutritious food was threatening future generations.
In his speech, reported in yesterday's Independent, Sir Donald, a former government chief medical officer, said help should be aimed at parents and children. Martin Barnes, the director of The Child Poverty Action Group, said: "The Government has taken promising first steps, but more needs to be done. It is a national scandal that parents and children are going hungry."
The inquiry into health inequalities chaired by Sir Donald has been riven by dissent and the report, to be published in the next few weeks, has not impressed ministers. Its 39 recommendations cover all areas of policy, from transport to education, but it is not thought to have come up with new solutions. Ministers are expected to point to existing initiatives, such as the welfare-to-work policy and the work of the Social Exclusion Unit, which are focused on raising absolute standards for the poor rather than reducing the relative gap with the rich.
The annual survey of households of below average income confirms the rich-poor divide during the years of Tory rule, but suggests the gap began to narrow after John Major succeeded Margaret Thatcher. Any changes in poverty levels since Labour took office will not be published for another year. But the picture that emerges from the Tory era suggests it will take years for Labour's policies to make a big impact.
A clear north-south divide emerges in the survey. Yorkshire and the Humber and the North-east had the largest percentage of the poorest. Wales was the poorest region overall, while the richest was the South-east - excluding London. Women were over-represented in the lowest income groups.
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