As we emerge out of the pandemic, another raging crisis only looks set to worsen – the crisis of child poverty.
In the North East of England this problem is affecting people far more harshly than others, including in my own constituency of Wansbeck. Here, we have seen the most rapid rise in child poverty of anywhere in the country by far – from 26 percent to 37 percent between 2015-16 and 2019-20. This has resulted in the region being just behind London in having the second highest levels of child poverty in the country.
These figures come before the full effects of the pandemic are known. Thousands have lost their jobs or been put on furlough, and there has been a rapid increase in those claiming benefits and free school meals. The £20 Universal Credit increase kept some families just above the brink. But as of 6 October, this too will be taken away, plunging thousands more of the most vulnerable in our communities into poverty.
The picture the Wansbeck Child Poverty Report paints will be a familiar one for those working with disadvantaged children in the region. Low wages, lack of opportunity, underfunding of schools, crumbling infrastructure and a broken childcare system – these grim truths all contribute to a self-perpetuating cycle of poverty felt in families across generations.
We live in one of the most centralised, unequal countries in the world. People feel alienated from a system that seems to fight against their interests at every turn. Communities have been hollowed out, and their identities stripped away in the name of global capital and the gods of ‘progress’ and finance, leaving individuals and places without meaning or identity, as well as devoid of well-paid and fulfilling work.
So far, the government simply has no answer for these problems, instead compounding them over a brutal decade of austerity and cuts. The ‘levelling up’ programme promised by the government is completely devoid of detail and ambition, while decisions like choosing not to keep the rise in Universal Credit have proven that no meaningful change will not be coming anytime soon from Downing Street and Westminster.
Some silver linings offer shreds of hope. Work is due to begin shortly on a new Gigafactory in Cambois built by Britishvolt that has the potential to bring thousands of opportunities for well-paid local jobs, as well as giving the economy a boost that it desperately needs.
But this alone will not be enough. We need a more fundamental shift of power, bringing both funding and decision-making into the hands of those who understand the problems communities face at regional and local level, so they can solve them most effectively. Costs must begin to be perceived as investments, and those in need must no longer be looked upon with suspicion and disdain.
We also can no longer sit and wait around for a government that is ideologically opposed and intrinsically hostile to the solutions required to act. Communities must do what they can with the resources available to them to take matters into their own hands. This is already being done in the form of Community Wealth Building in places such as Preston and North Ayrshire with considerable success.
But as it stands, things are broadly set to get worse. Not only is it our moral duty to do whatever we can to fight back against the horrific number of children growing up in poverty, but if things continue this way, we also risk creating a completely unsustainable social, economic, and political atmosphere of which the consequences will surely rear their ugly heads soon enough.
Who could blame a child growing up in a deprived area of the North East today looking around themselves and sensing a creeping feeling of helplessness and hopelessness? This country is failing its children, and it is them that will suffer, not those in the positions of power keeping them down. It is our duty to do what we can to help and support these children to give them, and us, a fighting chance for a brighter future.
The pandemic has exposed the already chronic underfunding of our public institutions such as schools and hospitals, and just how unequal our society really is today. This era must be a wake-up call to deal with the fundamental realities of poverty and inequality.