It’s half past eight, and the school day is just starting at Morecambe Bay Primary, a state-run school in northwest England. Siobhan Collingwood, the headteacher, points to a cheerful boy munching his way through two slices of toast – his first meal of the day.
Teachers, she says, sometimes find him sifting through trash cans for discarded fruit. “He’d eat his way through whatever we put in front of him.”
Some students trickle through without stopping; they’ve already eaten. But a few dozen head straight to the food counter. Of 350 students, roughly one in three would not have breakfast unless the school provided it, Collingwood reckons.
During Collingwood’s 13 years as headteacher at Morecambe Bay Primary, there have always been a few hungry children. But two years ago, the staff noticed an increasing number of youngsters returning undernourished after spending school breaks at home.
Initially, Collingwood and her staff were puzzled. Many parents held jobs, even if they struggled to cover the bills. Then it dawned on them that the rising number of hungry children at Morecambe Bay coincided with sharp reductions in welfare benefits associated with the clumsy introduction of a new welfare programme.
“As we spoke to parents,” Collingwood says, “it became clear that for many of them, it was caused by changes to the benefit system rolled out in recent years, which were forcing families into crisis.”
Across Britain, the number of children living in poverty has jumped sharply in the past six years, a trend that critics blame in part on the government’s policy of austerity, the budget-slashing response to the 2008 financial crisis steadily reshaping British life.
And there is no immediate relief on the horizon. The County Councils Network, a group of local governing bodies, warned recently of £1bn in budget cuts nationwide next year, draining more money from social services, including some for children.
To be clear, Britain is not Venezuela. Reports of hungry children showing up in Morecambe doctors’ offices with rickets have proved false. But that is cold comfort in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, one that over the years has made a strong commitment to child welfare.
While hunger is not the only social pathology associated with childhood poverty, it is perhaps the hardest to conceal. In that respect, it is a flashing signal of a deepening problem.
For children, the consequences of poverty can be severe. In the short term, poverty elevates the risk of illness, hunger and social stigma. In the long term, it can create a vicious cycle from which a child struggles to escape, especially in class-conscious Britain.
British teenagers from disadvantaged backgrounds are roughly a third as likely to achieve good GCSE grades, according to government statistics.
They are then roughly half as likely to go to university, according to a separate set of government data. Those who do make it are less likely to get a better paid job within six months of graduation than those from more privileged backgrounds. And they are less likely to make it into high status professions, such as finance, law or medicine.
Even those who do crack the “class ceiling” earn an average of 16 per cent less than more privileged peers, researchers at the London School of Economics found.
And those from poorer backgrounds are likely to die around five years earlier than those who are not, government data suggests.
Before the financial crisis in 2008 and the subsequent budget squeeze, successive British governments, both Conservative and Labour, achieved progress on childhood poverty. The number of minors living in “relative poverty” – families with an annual household income less than 60 per cent of the national median, after housing costs – fell by roughly 800,000 to 3.5 million between 1998 and 2012, or 27 per cent of all Britons aged 16 or younger.
But the same year that parliament passed the Welfare Reform Act, a central plank of the austerity programme, the trend began to reverse. Since 2012, about 600,000 children have fallen back into “relative poverty”. During the same period, the number of children requiring food handouts from the Trussell Trust, the country’s largest network of food banks, more than tripled, to over 484,000 from nearly 127,000.
Overall, since returning to power in 2010, the Conservatives have announced more than £30bn in benefit cuts and abandoned prior targets to substantially reduce child poverty by 2020.
By 2021, roughly 35 per cent of all minors in Britain are predicted to be poor, according to forecasts by the Institute for Fiscal Studies. And the country’s pending departure from the European Union may deepen the problem, because of rising living costs and the sudden loss of funding from Brussels for young people, according to a joint assessment by seven leading children’s charities.
In November, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty Philip Alston will make an official visit to Britain to research the connection between the austerity programme and the rise in poverty – the first such visit to Britain by a United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty.
“It’s increasingly evident, particularly to people working with children, that we’re in a child poverty crisis,” says Alison Garnham, chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, a British charity. “And it is primarily to do with the massive cuts to benefits.”
The Conservative Party leaders who pushed through the austerity programme dispute that it is the cause of rising child poverty, or that child poverty is increasing. They argue that universal credit – the new system that bundles most payments into one – is an improvement.
The new system is “infinitely better than what it replaced”, says Iain Duncan Smith, the Conservative former cabinet minister who oversaw the changes. “The process of stepping into work is easier.”
That rationale is being questioned. Though unemployment has been more than halved under the Conservatives, the overall child poverty rate has risen. And roughly two-thirds of poor children have at least one parent who works, the Institute for Fiscal Studies says.
“We tell ourselves completely the wrong story about poverty in the UK,” Garnham says. “The government likes to focus attention on workless families, but there’s hardly any left. That’s a problem of the past.”
Working, but poor
Just outside Morecambe, a tourist town that no longer draws so many tourists, George McCullough, a single parent to a six-year-old son, is in financial meltdown. His rent has fallen into arrears, and he can no longer pay the family’s utility bills. He’s started to dip into his overdraft, incurring further bank charges.
He’s stopped socialising and sometimes skips meals to ensure that his son eats three times a day. But he can no longer afford to give the boy a balanced diet or a new school uniform, or take him to see friends.
“He basically can’t go to any of his mates’ parties or houses,” McCullough says. “I literally can’t afford to pay for a gift, or even to take him there.”
What threw his affairs into crisis was the transition to universal credit. Before the welfare changes, McCullough received around £685 every month to supplement the roughly £500 a month he earns as a bus driver for disabled children.
It’s not just that he now receives roughly £40 less a month, though for a family that was already struggling to stay above the poverty line, the cut – the cost of a week’s groceries – was painful. (Others have experienced worse: the average working family has lost more than £75 a month, according to calculations by the Child Poverty Action Group.)
What has really hurt McCullough is how that loss is compounded, severely, by the problematic rollout of universal credit in 2016.
Under the new system, all claimants have to wait at least five weeks for their first payment – a dangerously long delay for families living hand-to-mouth. In McCullough’s case, the delay was long enough to throw him into a vicious cycle of debt.
By this May, the family had almost climbed from the hole when they were hit by a second quirk of the universal credit system. After his employers paid him early, giving him two payments in one month, officials wrongly concluded that his salary had doubled and cut his benefits. For several weeks, they refused to admit their mistake, plunging him back into debt.
“If this is going to be a regular occurrence,” McCullough asked, “where is the incentive to work?”
McCullough’s experiences are not unique. The government’s own research into the system found that nearly half of claimants needed help to fill out the application form, while four in 10 were still facing financial difficulties eight months into their time on universal credit.
Duncan Smith, who was the secretary of state for work and pensions between 2010 and 2015, acknowledges problems with the way the system has been put into effect. He even resigned in 2015 because the finance minister at the time, George Osborne, cut an additional £4bn from the welfare budget. “I thought that was too much,” Duncan Smith says.
But “the system itself is the right system,” he adds. “Though a large number of working families are still in poverty, they were in deeper poverty when they were out of work. As they move into work, they’re better off.”
Back at McCullough’s, the father’s eyes well up as his phone buzzes with debt notices from the local water board, and he describes how he struggles to provide his son with some of the basic things in life – like fresh vegetables, new clothes and haircuts.
McCullough voted Conservative in past elections and says he would do so again if an election were held tomorrow. Despite his travails, he supports the party’s cautious approach to state spending, and he thinks there are too many people expecting handouts for nothing.
But he no longer believes that restructuring benefits will get more people into work, or more children out of poverty.
“Until you walk a mile in someone’s shoes, you can’t know,” McCullough says. “Until you’ve seen how it works, you don’t understand.”
In Morecambe, the area’s Conservative MP David Morris says in an email that child poverty had fallen in his constituency, and blames “left-wing political activists” for any suggestion to the contrary. In previous interviews, he has accused headteacher Collingwood of having political motivations for speaking out.
But the demand for free breakfasts at Morecambe Bay Primary is not the only warning sign.
The relative child poverty rate in Morris’s constituency rose to 25.9 per cent from 2013 to 2017, up from 24.2 per cent, according to research by the Centre for Research in Social Policy at Loughborough University. That may not sound like much, but the rise has produced marked changes on the ground.
At the Morecambe Bay Foodbank, for instance, the number of children who received at least one parcel of free food has almost doubled to 1,229 in 2017-18, from 656 in 2013-14. At the local branch of Citizens Advice the number of food vouchers distributed to children in the same period increased sixfold, to 1,336 from 222.
In Morecambe, the problem is compounded by cuts to local children’s services. Before austerity, schools could quickly refer vulnerable families to a local state-funded children’s centre, where social workers would work with children and parents to solve their problems.
Since 2010, however, roughly 1,000 of these centres have been closed across Britain after about £990m in funding cuts. Those that remain – such as those in the Morecambe area – have substantially reduced their capacity.
“The caseload is growing, and the system by which we would have supported them is diminishing,” Collingwood says. “We feel much more like an island.”
© New York Times
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