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Taking from already impoverished families will leave children helpless

Why punish the children by trapping them in poverty so they are likely to fail at school and become trapped in a cycle of unemployment?

This Christmas marked the end of a truly awful year to be a child in poverty in Britain.

As the Chancellor rounded off 2012 by announcing plans to sever the link between benefits and inflation – arguably the biggest attack on the welfare state yet – I was drafting a short report on some of his targets; the families and young people who are too poor to feed themselves.

Food vouchers are an ‘emergency service’ which Barnardo’s provides to families and young people via local churches and organisations like the Trussell Trust. Families almost universally report they are ashamed to use the service, and when they reach the point where they ask for help they will have exhausted their own resources and will often have borrowed from family and friends too.

Recently we took a ‘snapshot’ survey of our food voucher services, and the families that use them – the results make harrowing reading. Sixty five per cent of services had seen an increase in families needing food vouchers, and many said children were turning up to activities without having breakfast, lunch or dinner. Three quarters of families reported that food poverty was impacting on their children’s health and well-being.

What had driven the families to this point? The vast majority of families reported they were using the food banks as an emergency measure, while they were waiting for their benefits to come through.

The reality is that, far from being a carte blanche to ‘shirk’, benefits are a lifeline to many families – including the six out of the ten impoverished households where someone works. Though small (many low income families survive on £12 a day) the payments are a buffer zone which prevents families on the brink of poverty from falling into absolute crisis.

In the New Year, the Government will vote on a bill to break the historic link between benefits and inflation. If it goes through, the policy will see benefits capped at a 1% increase every year for the next three years – no matter how much further the price of food or fuel, for example, continues to rise.

This coming year alone, an out-of-work couple with two children lose £120 – a loss that will snowball by 2015.

In the immediate term this policy will push families who go without in order to feed their children, even further into crisis. In the long term, it will punish the children of these families by trapping them in grinding poverty that will make them more likely to succumb to disease and illness, to fail at school and in future to be trapped in a cycle of unemployment.

This New Year the Government has a chance to do something about poverty. It should start by rejecting punitive measures that rent holes in the welfare safety net at a time where sustainable employment is evermore scarce. Instead it should focus on basic services, such as debt advice and training for young people, to spread privilege to the 3.6 million children who live below the breadline.

Neera is Assistant Director, Policy and Research at Barnardo’s