A leading British charity warns that 3.5 million children in the United Kingdom are growing up below the poverty line, while the divide between rich and poor continues to accelerate faster than anywhere else in the developed world.
Even in the middle of a recession it’s not difficult to see that the United Kingdom is still wealthy. The nation remains among the top ten largest economies in the world, and per capita it’s in the top 25.
Brand UK is fashionable again, thanks to the multi-billion pound Olympics; and there’s no shortage of tourists, shoppers or investors.
But even here, in London, considered Europe’s financial capital, levels of poverty, and the numbers of children growing up in impoverished households are incredibly high. Almost a third of children in London are living below the poverty line. And across the UK, those numbers are rising.”
With a total population of 62 million, the most recent figures show that 3 and a half million children are growing up in poverty, and 1.6 million are facing severe poverty in Britain.
A study by the British charity Save the Children has found that more than half of families in poverty are cutting back on food (61%). Almost a third of families have nothing left to cut back on (29%). And one in four parents say they sometimes skip meals themselves in order to feed their children (27%).
Sally Copley, Save the Children:
Childre see that their parents are stressed and worrying about money. Children are aware of their parents going without. Nearly half the children from the poorest families in our survey said that they saw their parents going without things like food or clothes for themselves, just to make ends meet.
The charity, which normally works to help the impoverished overseas, has for the first time in its 93 year history launched an appeal for children in the UK. While the situation may seem less serious relative to the plight of families in some developing countries, the charity argues that in a nation with so much wealth, it simply shouldn’t happen here.
Sally Copley, Save the Children:
Some children go without a hot meal every day, some children go without the right shoes, or without a decent winter coat for school. And these are things that actually build up and have a strong impact on children growing up.
Studies show that the majority of children in poverty are from working families. While food and fuel prices have soared, wages have remained static. In London, that’s been compounded by rising housing costs.
John Rees, Political Activist and Co-author of ‘A People’s History of London’:
For the first time in this country, apart from the late 1970s, since the second world war, real wages are declining. At the same time there’s a massive growth of part-time working, zero-hour contracts. And so the actual pay that people are receiving, and the conditions under which they work, are being squeezed in the labour market in a way that they haven’t been probably since the second world war.
June and Josh Wing live with their family in East London, just a few miles from where the lavish 2012 olympics were held. Things changed for them when June became seriously ill two years ago. She’s currently undergoing chemotherapy for cancer, and her husband Josh has been forced to leave his job to look after her and the children. The family has now joined the growing ranks of households across Britain struggling to make ends meet, whether in work, out of work, or unable to work. The impact on the household budget has meant cutting back on everything, to the point where the parents are now even cutting back on food.
June Wing, Parent:
I will feed the kids, and I’ll make sure there’s enough for my husband, but I will say ‘I’m not hungry’. I’ll make up some excuse, because there’s not enough for me. And Josh does that during the week with lunch.
Do they know that you’re going without?
Josh Wing, Parent:
The eldest one does, Emma, she says ‘what about you?’. We’ll say ‘it’s alright, we’ll eat later’.
My eldest boy says to me, Ryan, says ‘is there enough milk for me to have a glass of milk mum?’. And I feel awful because as a mother I should be able to provide for my children, whether I’m on benefits or not.
You have to apologise and say ‘sorry mate, not today’.
The family do receive some welfare benefits, but after years of paying into the welfare state, they feel the government simply isn’t doing enough to support people in their position, who’ve now fallen on hard times.
If I could get up and go to work, believe me, I would. If my husband could, he would. But I need him here, I need him to care for me. You’ve (Josh) paid into it, before I had children I was working full time â€“ I paid my taxes, I paid my national insurance. Now all I’m asking is for a bit of help, but I’m not getting, because at the end of the day I’m being punished for being a mum, and for being at home all the time, and for being ill.
We are probably a bit better off than some. I just really feel sorry for people who are similar to us or worse.
There are kids out there who don’t even get a meal a day.
The economic crisis that was caused by the bankers is being paid for by cuts in welfare provision. So just at the point when very, unprecedented, large numbers of people are being caught in the poverty trap, the ladder out or the safety net, as it’s being called, is being removed. The elementary provision, disability benefit for instance, is under attack. The benefit system when you are unemployed is being constantly squeezed. They’re now talking about fining people if they don’t do what the social security are telling them in terms of finding a job. So far from helping them out of poverty, they’re pushing them down.
If my money get’s cut even more, I don’t know what I’m going to do. Because it’s either: feed your kids or your kids go without clothing, or clothe your kids and they go without food. Which one are you going to do?
Today, amid recession and welfare reform, many in severe poverty are turning to charities in their desperation.
In a quiet corner of the town of Salisbury, two hours drive from London, staff at the Trussel Trust package up emergency supplies of food. The trust started out helping children in Bulgaria, in Eastern Europe. But today, it’s found itself dedicating much of its time and resources to helping the impoverished on its own doorstep.
Molly Hodson, Trussel Trust:
We give out a minimum of three days emergency food to local people who’ve hit a crisis â€“ that’s men, women and children. We’re seeing working families coming to us, people who’ve been made redundant, people whose hours have been cut, who have been self-employed and have gone from having seven contracts to having two and it’s meant that they literally cannot afford to put food on the table. And a third of everyone we feed in a year are children.
The trust has helped to set up 250 food banks across Britain. They operate on food donated by members of the public, and are run by local communities. In the past year, they’ve seen a 100% rise in the number of people seeking help.
Poverty in the UK is often quite hidden. And so we have people coming to us and they’re really embarrassed, because it’s taken so much courage for them to even walk through the doors of the food bank, because they don’t necessarily want to have to admit that they’ve reached a point where they can’t feed their children that night. I spoke to a lady the other day who was breaking down in tears because she said that she’d been skipping meals, she hadn’t eaten for five days. That was the first day that she actually had no food to feed her children, and that’s why she’d come to the food bank â€“ but it had taken that much for her to come to the food bank.
In 2010/11 we fed 61.5 thousand people. This year it’s jumped to 128,697, which is massive. We’ve launched 100 food banks in the last year, we launched 100 food banks in the year before that.
But donations of food have also risen to meet that demand.
It’s that sort of mentality that ‘actually, it could be me’. People are really starting to understand that more. We’ve seen huge levels of generosity throughout recession and the economic crisis. But it is tight, food is going out as fast as it’s coming in at lots of food banks.
Without doubt the food banks are a lifeline to many, particularly at a time when cuts to welfare support, public services, and a weak labour market, are heavily impacting low income families. The government’s austerity measures and financial policies, which it says it must implement in order to reduce the UK’s massive budget deficit, have served to increase the financial disparity between the rich and the poor in Britain.
Since March 2009, the UK government, through the Bank of England, has printed 375 billion pounds of new money to prop up the economy. That’s helped the top 10% get richer, by raising the value of shares and bonds. But for the 50% of UK households who have no financial assets, and who arguably need help the most, there’s been no financial gain.
And that’s according to the Bank of England’s own report.
If you get on the Jubilee line at Westminster, where the houses of parliament are, for every stop that you travel East, life expectancy in the capital will fall by a single year. So by the time you’re out in East London, you’ve nearly a decade’s difference in life expectancy. Now that shouldn’t be happening. That was something that was supposed to end when Victorian London came to the end of its days, it shouldn’t be happening in the 21st century.
In London, and elsewhere actually, the gap between the rich and the poor is now greater than when Charles Dickens was writing ‘Hard Times’. 25 years, a generation now, of neo-liberal economics, begun in the late 1970s by the Labour government under Jim Callaghan, then by Margaret Thatcher â€“ the ‘Wall Street, Greed is Good’ economy â€“ this is the result of it. We always said that it would be. And this, after 25 years, is where we’ve got to. So the whole story that we were told, about trickle down, about rebooting the economy, that everyone would benefit â€“ that is now standing as a gross lie.
Families like the Wings may not be particularly interested in politics. But they are acutely aware of what they see as the government’s misplaced priorities.
How can they justify bailing out the banks. They need to re-look at their priorities, because I don’t think that may people think that war and the Olympics are a priority. I think that children in your own back yard should come above everyone else.
I think it’s going back to the old days again, where you have to steal a loaf of bread to get by.
Save the children says the government needs to encourage more employers to pay a living wage, provide extra child care support to help parents trying to get into work, and protect the poorest and most disadvantaged from further cuts. The government has restated its commitment to eradicating child poverty, while critics of Save the Children have accused it of seeking publicity and playing politics against the coalition government. But for the moment, the charity predicts a further 400 thousand British children will fall into the poverty trap by 2015. Hassan Ghani, for Real News, London.