Sue Hickling has been a volunteer at her local foodbank for over two years, but even she was brought to tears this Christmas when she saw a nurse come through the doors to collect a food parcel for her child.
We can all empathise with Sue. The idea that any nurse would have to go to a foodbank in order to feed their child after going through what my friends in A&E described as ‘hell’ this winter is as shocking as it is saddening.
But the sad truth is that this unknown nurse is not the only one who has needed to visit a foodbank to feed her child, nor is her child the only one who is going hungry. Today, one in seven children are going hungry in this country. Before the pandemic, it was one in ten.
We all agree that for any child to go hungry in this country is wrong. So why are there now 1.7 million of them? Food banks were practically unheard of before 2010, so why are they now firmly entrenched in the national lexicon? Why did the Trussell Trust hand out around two million food parcels before the pandemic struck? And why have they handed out around three million this year?
The answer is that David Cameron and George Osborne’s decisions led to more than a million children going hungry. They chose to cut social security payments from low-income non-pensioners who wouldn’t vote for them. That isn’t just the conclusion of my own research – that was the conclusion of their coalition partner, Nick Clegg. He believed that both David Cameron and George Osborne ‘had very little sympathy or understanding of people on very low incomes, and were inclined to write them off politically as ‘not our voters’.’
Cameron and Osborne made a political choice to cut payments from low-income children. Osborne chose to paint welfare cuts as only affecting the ‘skivers’ who didn’t work hard enough. This was wrong. Conservative cuts were cruel and brutal for everyone in low-income households, including working ones.
They would become even more true after 2015, when the Conservatives had a majority. The measure that limits social security payments to only two children led to a fall in income of over £2,000 for households containing around a million children. From 2015, social security payments for non-pensioners were frozen, leading to a 6 percent cut in when you take into account inflation. Both cuts hit working and workless households.
Before the pandemic struck, seven in ten children below the poverty line lived in working households. Around one in seven full-time working parents were living in poverty. The problem is not that low-income parents don’t work hard enough to feed their kids; it’s that they can’t get enough income to put enough food on the table when they do.
Osborne argued that the rise in the National Living Wage would compensate for these cuts, but he knew that was untrue. He knew because the Treasury produces analysis that would show how cuts would lead to lower incomes even when you included the higher National Living Wage. He knew because the Institute for Fiscal Studies published analysis (that the Treasury were unwilling to) showing how much low-income families would lose from his cuts. A higher minimum wage does not stop families slipping into poverty, because social security payments are withdrawn as you earn more – your effective tax rate on Universal Credit is 63 percent.
George Osborne knew that low-income families teetering on the brink would lose hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of pounds from his cuts after 2015. He knew that food bank use had exploded. He must have known these cuts would have led to more children going hungry. And yet he chose to cut anyway. It may be ironic that these political cuts ended up costing him his political career, but it’s of scant consolation to today’s hungry children.
Let’s take a look at how these cuts have hit low-income families. Below I’ve modelled how much money low-income families on Universal Credit have lost from the cuts between 2010 and 2020. The results are grim. Even with the recent uplift to Universal Credit, a low-income two-child family has lost around £1,000. A four-child family has lost around £4,000 a year.
In this year’s Budget, Rishi Sunak had the opportunity to at least make sure that child hunger would not rise further. He could have made the Universal Credit uplift permanent. He could have chosen to extend it to those on legacy payments.
Instead, he chose to cut £1,000 from low-income families in six months’ time, and hid behind the Osbornite claim that the minimum wage rise would compensate for his cuts. That is risible nonsense – and the Chancellor knows it is risible nonsense, too. The Treasury still produce analysis showing how much low-income households would lose including the higher minimum wage (even if they still engage in sleight-of-hand tactics to hide the impact of the latest cuts).
We should never accept any child going hungry in this country. No ifs, no buts, and no exceptions. That is why we should all join the campaign to ensure the Universal Credit uplift is made permanent. Then we should keep on campaigning to get more money into the pockets of low-income families until we end child hunger in this country. I know I will be, and I hope that you will join me.