The true hardships of the one in three children in Britain who live in poverty are exposed in a new report revealing that a quarter of the country's poorest households cannot afford to put a daily hot meal on the table for every family member.
The ground-breaking report, Living With Hardship 24/7, which was published yesterday by the child poverty charity The Frank Buttle Trust, takes an in-depth look at the experiences of families surviving in low-income households, exposing details of their daily struggles that would not look out of place in a developing country.
The study found that children as young as five were so keenly aware of their parents' financial difficulties that they gave back money to help support the household. The children surveyed were from 70 families across the country with an income of less than £11,000.
Almost half of the parents interviewed said they could not afford basic toys or sports equipment for their children, and a third did not have enough money to buy the winter clothes their offspring needed. Some children said they did not ask for Christmas presents for fear of adding to their parents' burden.
Eight-year-old Fiona said her parents' financial situation made her fear for her sister's life. Her parents were dependent on benefits and were £30,000 in debt. Asked how she felt about their predicament, Fiona said: "I'm really, really scared ... Because if we don't have much money then we won't buy food and then my baby sister will die."
The report's author, Dr Carol-Ann Hooper, a senior lecturer in social policy at the University of York, said: "Children as young as five recognised that poverty was a key source of stress for their parents, and some tried to alleviate it by hiding their needs and wishes, and giving or lending money they had received from other family members. They were also often sad, angry, frustrated or upset by the impacts of poverty on their lives and hardship clearly impacted in a range of ways on all dimensions of children's well-being."
The anxiety of children who felt they should be helping more was also highlighted in the report. Amy, nine, explained how she was worried about her mother being able to afford a birthday present for her: "I just think I should really be paying for stuff," she said. "I should do more for my mum that I'm not doing really, but I don't really have enough money to do any more."
In the foreword to the report, the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, wrote: "The Government pledged in 1999 to halve child poverty by 2010 and to end it by 2020. While absolute poverty in Britain has fallen as a result of the measures taken by the Government, there are still 2.8 million children living in poverty in the UK today – that is one in three children. A great deal more needs to be done."
End Child Poverty, a coalition of 100 children's charities, has been lobbying the Government to keep its promise of eradicating child poverty by 2020. This is looking increasingly less likely, as the number of minors living in poverty rose by 100,000 last year.
Hilary Fisher, the director of End Child Poverty, said: "It's shocking to think that in this country, one of the richest in the world, there are children worried their siblings might die because they don't have enough food. We have five-year-olds so concerned about money that if they receive any they give it to their parents.
"Most people in the UK don't believe poverty exists, and they can't imagine what it looks like. We have one of the highest rates of child poverty in the industrialised world and we need action now to tackle it. We are calling on the Chancellor to make the 2008 Budget a Budget to end child poverty. Without the investment of an extra £4bn by April 2009, the Government's commitment to child poverty targets will just be a hollow promise."
Laura Macarthur, 22: 'Often I don't eat'
Laura Macarthur, 22, a single mother, lives in Huddersfield with her one-year-old son, Camden. She is unemployed and surviving on benefits. "I don't manage to pay all the bills. With it getting so cold now we need the heating on more; it's very difficult. Sometimes I run out of gas or electricity because I haven't been able to top up the meter." When Ms Macarthur broke up with her boyfriend she was left with nowhere to go, so she went to the local homeless centre. "I had to take the first council flat that came up, but it was in a really rough estate, and had almost no provisions. Often I don't eat because I can't afford to. I'm more worried about feeding Camden. The Government seems to think you only need £59 a week to survive, but it's not enough, and child benefit doesn't come close to covering the extra amount that you need to bring up kids."Reuse content