A generation of UK children will suffer in poverty. Suddenly that’s normal
Nearly half of children are now living in poverty in some parts of the UK, research bythe End Child Poverty coalition has found. It’s worth pausing on that. In an era of rising rents, low wages and benefit freezes and cuts, go to a playground in many areas of this country – think Birmingham, Manchester, or London – and out of a group of 10 boys and girls, four or five of them will be in poverty.
We are witnessing a scale of child poverty that the word crisis doesn’t seem to do justice to. Anyone who works with children – teachers, social workers, nurses – has seen this firsthand. As a journalist, I’ve spoken to mums struggling to buy food – living off toast themselves or learning to make cheap dough that fills the stomach – and a dad contemplating suicide because the bedroom tax means an eviction notice might come. Families who have a home but not a kitchen table or fridge and parents with a 10-month-old baby who has to sleep on a sheet on the floor because the B&B has no space for a cot.
This is not rare, and it didn’t come out of nowhere. From the early days of the 2010 Conservative-Lib Dem coalition onwards, children’s charities warned that government policies would increase child poverty. Two years ago I reported that it was becoming common even for disabled children to be so poor that their parents couldn’t afford food or heating. Children like the 12-year-old in Suffolk, who had severe brain damage and poor immunity. He was incontinent and caught 13 lung infections in a year. He got cold at night when he was wet with urine and his mum didn’t have the money to pay for the extra heating.
Nothing has got better – in fact, the number of children living in poverty increased by 200,000 over the past year – and the truth is, things are only going to get worse. The UK is set for the biggest increase in child poverty in a generation, with the Institute for Fiscal Studies projecting that relative child poverty will rise by a staggering 50% by 2020. The new lowered benefit cap alone could push 40,000 children below the breadline. This Christmas, the number of homeless children will hit an eight-year high; more than 120,000 children stuck in temporary accommodation with almost 13,000 sleeping in B&Bs, hostels, or other emergency shelter.
We mourn a loss of empathy taking hold of this country – and watch this week, as the world appeared to get a little darker. The attitude to child poverty is now part of it. No politician stands up and claims to be for child poverty. No voter is pro-hungry 7-year-olds or shivering newborn babies. But that doesn’t mean there is any real will to help them, or even not to hurt them. We are in a political climate that responds to policies known to push children into poverty with at best, indifference, and at worst, moral justification. Damian Green brought in the benefit cap this week with the line families on benefits should face the “same choices” as those in work – read: have fewer children and be damned the ones already born. Glance at social media or comment threads in articles on child poverty, and it is perfectly normal to see some respond to horrendous deprivation by spewing hate at the “lazy”parents, as if even infants aren’t worth a moment of compassion. As inequality widens and poverty is entrenched, it feels as if it’s becoming second nature to view children with the “wrong” accent or postcode as less deserving than children with the “right” ones. Less innocent. Less important. Part of an underclass, easily ignored, especially by the men and women in power. The children in the prime minister’s constituency, notably, are some of Britain’s wealthiest.
If anyone cared to look, it would not be hard to see the children who have been wounded by years of cuts are just like any others. Perfect little people with futures, but who are growing up with rumbling stomachs, torn coats and cold bedrooms. A generation of Britain’s children is being consigned to suffer in poverty. But what is worse is, it’s now entirely normalised.
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