Tackling the big questions on child poverty: whose responsibility is it?

Tackling the big questions on child poverty: whose responsibility is it?

12th November 2020

With increasing awareness around child food poverty and the recent announcement by the Government to fund holiday provision throughout 2021, there were a lot of questions and myths around child food poverty raised. This blog series will tackle some of those, while also explaining why TLG’s Box of Hope campaign is still so important this winter.

This second blog tackles the questions: why should the Government commit to holiday provision? Is it not parental responsibility? Why aren’t they just buying reduced, cheap food at the supermarket?

In the first blog of this mini-series (click here to read it), we spoke about what can cause poverty and how it is not simple to just ‘get out of it’. This blog will specifically answer questions in relation to child food poverty, bearing in mind the issues discussed in the first blog.

The truth is, the majority of parents living in poverty across the UK try everything they can to feed and provide for their children. One in four parents of primary school children have skipped meals to make ends meet (EndHungerUK 2018), going hungry themselves to ensure their child can eat what little they have. Poverty-relief charities also constantly hear of parents forced to choose between spending what little they have heating their homes to keep their children warm, or buying food to stop their children from going hungry. An impossible decision that none of us could make nor ever want to have to make.

When a parent is in this desperate situation where they can not even afford to top up the meter, let alone buy a week’s worth of food, it is not a case of them ‘just taking responsibility’.  Similarly, when you have literally nothing left, even finding a few pence to pull together for ‘reduced’ food is not as simple an option as it is sometimes made out to be.

Case study: “There were days when I’d be hunting around the house trying to find any loose change so we could afford food for our dinner…there were times when the kids were hungry but we didn’t have enough food in the cupboards.”

Often, parents in this situation are already doing everything they can, in dire circumstances, and they need added support.

Despite being at crisis point and contrary to some people’s opinions, many people wait months, even years, before reaching out for help. Parents find it hard to admit they are struggling and are worried about the response they will be greeted with when they do. Instead of creating a culture where parents end up feeling ashamed for needing help, we should be openly encouraging people to reach out for support when they need it. Most people will fall upon hard times at somepoint in life and we should be there for each other when we do, as well as the Government offering a safety net.

Case study: Y, a single mum of a young child and who is struggling to find work despite being qualified, admitted it took her some time to ask for help as her pride stopped her: “It was a sense of ‘I shouldn’t rely on other people.’ My pride was hurt. But I knew it wasn’t just about me. Food banks and charities are really understanding. A lot of the time people working there have been in that situation, they get it, and if you want to stay anonymous, you can.”

While relying on a low-income, every penny spent is critical. However, with rent costs consistently increasing this often tears into a family’s income, leaving minimal amounts left for food, bills and other expenses. Plus, for families living near wider family, friends and support networks - not to mention the costs of moving home - it is not as simple as ‘just moving to a cheaper area’.

Instead, families on an already tight budget are left on an even tighter one, once the monthly bills have gone out, making affording enough food for their children almost impossible.

Case study: K, a single mum of three young children, is on Universal Credit, unable to work while needing to provide childcare for her children. The cost of rent in her area is particularly high, meaning that after the costs of rent and other bills there is little money left for food.

In situations where families have suddenly been plunged into what they hope will be temporary poverty (such as during the COVID-19 crisis) they may choose to implement 'food trade offs' which will result in poor nutrition. In these situations, the food bill is often the most flexible bill in the budget (as opposed to rent, utilities etc which are fixed amount taken by direct debit). Food and nutrition is often where people are forced to compromise when they are struggling, meaning they sometimes go without or have to make nutritional sacrifices (for example, biscuits are cheaper, more long lasting and more filling than fruit).

When there has been a 107% increase in children receiving emergency food this year (Children’s Society, 2020) and when as many as nine children in a classroom of 30 live in poverty (DWP, 2018), this is not a case of parents not taking responsibility, this is a systemic issue that needs urgent change. 

Instead of reducing the support available to parents of children in poverty, we need to be doing the opposite. We need to be increasing the number of children eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) and holiday provision, as currently it does not come close to reflecting the number of children in poverty.

There is a significant difference between the number of children eligible for/claiming FSM and the number of children living in poverty. In January 2019, 15.4% of children were eligible for and claiming FSM (Department for Education 2019) with an estimated 20% children living in relative poverty, rising to 30% after housing costs (House of Commons Library, 2020).

TLG Make Lunch clubs are already encouraged to use a 'blurry line approach' for who is eligible when considering which families need their support. Some of the reasons why a wider approach is needed are that younger siblings not in school yet will not receive any assistance, as it is just their older sibling who is eligible for FSM. There have also been issues with families with no recourse to public funds (families who are unable to access most state support, usually this is due to their immigration status) accessing support, with some changes introduced in May 2020 in response to this. There are also families who may not be aware they are eligible for FSM, including families who have recently hit financial hardship. These families will be struggling financially during COVID-19, without access to the hot and healthy meal that FSM provides potentially resulting in children going hungry. Our 'blurry line approach' gives the TLG Make Lunch Coordinators the chance to provide assistance to any child and family in need, not just specifically those claiming Free School Meals.

Case study: When R and S first started coming to TLG Make Lunch, they were struggling financially as they were not allowed to work due to their immigration situation. Feeding their two children three meals every day was challenging, especially during the school holidays. 

During the COVID-19 crisis the Government introduced the important and necessary furlough scheme, with the total number of jobs furloughed reaching 9.6 million at the time of writing (HMRC, 2020). While a critical policy that will have saved many people from unemployment and an even more drastic drop in income, for some of these families that 20% income change will have made the difference between them previously managing but now falling into financial struggles. With the eligibility criteria for FSM dependant on benefit claiming, there is no allowance for families who are temporarily struggling to afford food because of furlough to claim FSM for their children, as well as those families who had to reduce their working hours due to childcare restrictions in the initial lockdown.

Case study: H’s partner was furloughed during the early days of the pandemic. With losing this 20%, on top of losing her job and rising electricity and food costs as a result of the whole family being at home, the family were left struggling to afford the basic necessities. H recalls one particular moment when she realised they did not have enough money to get through the week and had no idea how they were going to feed their children. 

Through the situations above and many other situations families in poverty find themselves in, the parents are doing all they can to provide for their children and fully shouldering that responsibility, but they still need added support. The Government offering support is not taking that responsibility away from parents, it is supporting them in their time of need.

As always when issues like this are discussed, a few people raise questions around the extremely small minority of people who may ‘use’ the system. In the extremely small minority of cases where this happens, we still need to do whatever we can to ensure the child does not go hungry. This provision is about caring for the child. That child in that situation did not choose their circumstances nor are they able to do anything about it. It is not right to leave them hungry due to factors beyond their control.

Child hunger is always about more than just the immediate effects too. It has long been accepted that there is a clear link between a child going hungry and their education. While more than two-thirds of non-disadvantaged children achieved grade 4 or higher in maths and English, just 36% of those eligible for Free School Meals did so. (Department for Education 2020). As children are already facing a school year of disruption and a desperate attempt to catch up on lost education, 64% of teachers surveyed think that hunger will harm efforts to catch children up on the learning they missed out on during school closures. This rose to 79% of teachers in schools with above-average levels of disadvantage. (Magic Breakfast 2020). A child going hungry now could affect them for the rest of their life.

There does need to be a focus on long-term solutions as well as the short-term solutions to child poverty. However, until those long-term solutions are implemented, it is critical measures are put in place to stop children from going hungry. TLG, along with others, wants to see the Government and opposition parties working together to tackle the ever-increasing crisis that is child poverty in the UK. This will involve new policies as well as adapting existing policies.

This blog has gone some way to explain that, while the majority of parents are trying their very best to provide for their children, many families in poverty need additional support. The recent package of support will go some way to addressing this but more needs to be done, especially to implement long-term solutions.

As we know first-hand that the need is so great and so complex, we will also continue to support families, alongside recent commitments from the Government, throughout the winter period. Local churches partnering with TLG are able to help families through our programmes, including our Box of Hope campaign which is providing emergency food and welfare packages to families across the UK. To find out more about our Box of Hope campaign, including how you can play your part, click here.

Recommended further reading:

Beth Prescott

Beth Prescott

Before coming to TLG, Beth worked as a Fundraising Project Manager for poverty-relief charity Christians Against Poverty. Beth also has expansive experience in the political sector. Beth is a season ticket holder at Huddersfield Town and enjoys hiking through the Yorkshire countryside followed by a local ale in the pub.

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