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Britain’s Child Poverty Scandal

Theresa May leaves office with millions of children in poverty and unable to get enough food to eat. It is a disgraceful legacy that deserves no sympathy.

Children are savagely cruel and prone to leap on any aspect of difference as a weapon in their arsenal of bullying tactics. Poverty in particular marks children out sharply in schools, and clothes, an inability to afford school trips, extracurricular activities, holidays, birthday parties, or even invite friends over for tea have always been seized upon by schoolyard tormentors. More people are in work than ever before, yet the number of children in poverty is also rising: one in five children do not get enough food, and the food they do eat is often less nutritious than the meals their more comfortable peers can afford.

Teachers across the country have been warning about the effects of austerity on children for years. One teacher told me she had to deal with food disappearing from the lunchboxes of children in her school, and eventually found three culprits, all of whom were doing so because they were so hungry they could not concentrate. Another reported catching children eating toilet paper in a desperate bid to feel full and quell the hunger pangs they felt. More and more schools are forced to wash children’s school uniforms, because their parents cannot afford laundrette fees let alone a washing machine. Many teachers have spoken about instituting breakfast clubs after multiple children fainted in class, and behaviour deteriorated terribly because children were too hungry to learn and concentrate. 

At the same time, increasing numbers of schools are being forced to beg parents for contributions for such basic supplies as paper, pens, and books. A number of schools in England have been forced to close early on Fridays in an attempt to save money. The National Union of Teachers report countless teachers are struggling to make ends meet, beset by stagnating wages, booming housing costs, and a rise in the cost of living since the financial crash of 2008 that has not kept pace with wage inflation. Schools can only do so much for poor children while hammered by austerity themselves, and school meals remain relatively poor quality, with schools attempting to feed as many children as possible for very little.

Growing up poor in school in south Wales, a few memories emerge. The predominant, pervading sense was of how cold you often felt: a cold that gets into your bones, makes your skin feel harder, and your limbs brittle — a cold that brings with it an attendant misery, as it gnaws at your consciousness and prevents other thoughts emerging through the clinging discomfort. I read far more than most of my peers, partly because you can do so in bed, wearing clothes under the covers during the winter, attempting to warm yourself up. But play is just as important for children’s happiness and development, in terms of socialisation, building emotional bonds with siblings and classmates, and also encouraging exercise. Academic research finds poor children less likely to participate in competitive sport at more serious levels, both due to the cost of training, travel to sessions, but also because (especially teenage boys) are unable to afford the calorie intake and a nutritious diet.

Children are also far more perceptive than we might think: at a very young age, children will notice their poverty, appreciate the stigma, and often attempt to change their own behaviour to hide their unhappiness and hunger from their parents, knowing the emotional burden involved. One of the secondary schools I attended instituted a separate line for the children in receipt of free school meals in the canteen, marking us out as different. Myself and a number of other girls responded by simply not eating, in a developmental period where we were at risk of developing eating disorders anyway.

Many of the experiences people like me went through under the 1980s and ’90s Conservative governments have come roaring back. In part, this is due to the refusal of Labour both in government and in opposition to fight the media’s stigmatisation and scapegoating of those on benefits. Instead, the party facilitated and encouraged it, so that even as it brought child poverty down in government it paved the way for it to increase again after the crash. The professionalisation of the Jobcentre, gatekeeping of social security payments — especially for single mothers — and fostering of a narrative that overplayed the incidence of false benefit claims created fertile ground for Conservative revanchism.

A functional country should not require a minister for hunger, but the United Kingdom is not a functional country. In January a number of MPs called for a minister to be appointed to the cabinet to deal very specifically with the huge surge in hunger across the country. Food banks are feeding a million people every year and teachers warn that ‘holiday hunger’, when children go without food during school holidays thanks to the absence of free school meals, is an increasing problem. These are morbid symptoms of a broken system that values only some lives, and is not morally troubled by suffering.

Austerity is responsible for the resurgence in poverty, but also makes it far more difficult to undo the damage inflicted on lives and communities. Once you take away the services that make life bearable away, inevitably, politicians and the Right turn to blaming the poor for society’s ills, rather than asking why poverty happens: the oppressed become the issue, rather than the structure that oppresses them coming under attack. 

The response from the Right is either to deny child poverty exists, or to blame parents for bringing children into the world without an abundance of cash and a nailed-down job to sustain a family. The Left too rarely counters this by insisting that everyone should have the right to a family of the size they want, at the time of their choosing. If an economy cannot provide jobs that allow people the ability to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves and their children, the state must accept responsibility for its failure.

Children are a social good, and essential not just to the perpetuation of the population of the globe, but key to any functioning community. Parenting is difficult and exhausting, and yet people continue to have children. Treating the right to have children as little more than a consumer issue degrades the human experience, and is the first domino in a chain of argument that sees value in human life only if it is attached to capital.

Child poverty should be ended not because children are particularly innocent and therefore incapable of changing their circumstances: that presupposes that some poverty is deserved, and that adults on low incomes are not also subject to economic structural violence, but simply not trying hard enough to lift themselves out of poverty. No poverty should exist, but child poverty is most often at the root of all poverty — few who grow up in it escape it in later life. 

The rule of tens should be enough to shame any government into action: the poorest 10 per cent of children will die 10 years earlier than the richest 10 per cent. Poor children are much more likely to die at birth or in infancy, are roughly 200 grams lighter than other children when newborns. They achieve, on average, two grades lower than their wealthy counterparts in formal examinations. Poorer health and qualifications have a long-term impact on life: failing to stamp out child poverty is the most straightforward way to increase inequality in perpetuity.

Internalising the shame of poverty has lifelong effects on the confidence of children in low income households, and adds to the volume of human misery our discredited economic system produces. After Grenfell Tower, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell was criticised for using the term ‘social murder’ to describe the atrocity. He was right to do so: and it applies too in the case of child poverty, which leads to death and degradation which are entirely unnecessary.

Everyone should have the basic human right to a childhood free of suffering that enables their personal and emotional development to progress unhindered. Every child should have the right to achieve their potential, without being hampered and limited by hunger, fuel poverty, homelessness, ill health, and scarce resources. The Left has to demand better for children, and refuse to allow for the arguments of the Right. This is not only because they demonise the working class, but because on this topic they break more dangerous ground: often veering into eugenics with their questions about whether the poor should be permitted to have children.

Children can’t wait years for policies to be developed that offer limited sticking plasters for the misery they experience: every skipped meal or cold night is, step by step, depriving a child of the life they deserve. Fulfilling human potential means battling for children’s happiness and for human rights to be taken seriously: work has to pay more, but the state must also provide economically and materially. It is time to stop talking about closing community services and libraries, or cutting child protection and education — and propose radically and urgently expanding them instead.