More children in the UK now rely on food aid than ever before. According to the Trussell Trust, who run the UK's largest network of food banks (around 400 and growing), 126 889 children received emergency food aid in 2012/13. Add to this the estimate from Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty of other emergency food aid providers, and you get closer to 200 000 – a figure which current estimates looks like to have doubled this year. Last year, a report for the London Assembly found that 15% of children were regularly telling their parents they were hungry.
Child poverty hits home far more to politicians and the public. In part this is because many people still (wrongly) believe that your own poverty is your fault, but the children of those in poverty have made no 'bad choices'. They are 'innocent', it is their parents who are 'guilty'. Still, it provided a rare point of political consensus on taking action.
In 1999 is was declared that child poverty in the UK could be eliminated by 2020. This would be accomplished by pumping money into childcare, early years support, and in-work benefits. Fifteen years later these social gains are being wiped out. 400 Sure Start centres have closed, childcare is prohibitively expensive, and in-work benefits are failing to keep up with the cost of living.
A survey of 1700 teachers by The Mirror last year showed 85% of teachers had seen an increase in children coming to school hungry. The survey also confirmed a rise in free school meals (something we'll return to later).
Cost of living crisis
Behind these statistics is the cost of living crisis in the UK. For those in work, their pay no longer keeps up with costs, and for those out of work the benefit system has become increasingly punitive and provided less and less.
Housing costs in the UK continue to spiral. With many people locked out of buying housing, the number of renters has climbed to 9 million (more than the number of people living in social housing). There are no price controls on UK housing, and public policy has focused on stimulating demand for housing rather than supply. The average UK house is now £250 000, and prices are predicted to rise a further 8% in 2014.
Utility costs are also rising. Between 2010 and 2013, the cost of energy went up 37%. Food prices have doubled globally in the past 10 years, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). In the UK, a survey by Which? magazine in September found that 41% of people were experiencing increased stress levels due to rising food prices. 29% of people were struggling to buy enough food for themselves or their household.
Crisis of work
These price rises may have been manageable had take-home pay kept up with costs. The amount of money brought in depends on not just wages, but hours as well. The rise of the zero-hours contract as standard in low-paid and casualised sectors of the economy means many workers are 'underemployed'. A recent survey, by the trade union 'Unite', revealed that up to 5.5 million workers are on contracts which guarantee less than 3 hours work. The number of self-employed people in the UK has gone up, but this masks a 20% decrease in self-employed incomes against an ever more ‘casualised’ and insecure life.
Wages themselves have fallen in real terms. The Institute of Fiscal Studies (hardly a radical outfit) calculated one-third of workers who stayed in the same job in 2010-11 saw their wages cut or frozen. The IFS spokeperson described this as “unprecedented” compared to previous recessions.
Crisis of benefits
Welfare reform has left families (in and out of work) struggling. On top of the headline reforms like the bedroom tax and the benefit cap are a long list of smaller but no less significant changes to welfare. For example, since June 2010 benefits only go up by the CPI rate of inflation instead of RPI (which includes housing costs). Income support for lone parents was restricted to those with a child aged 5 or under (compared to 7 or under before). Child benefit and the childcare element of working tax credits were also restricted, and the baby element of child tax credits was removed all together. Changes to child support are estimated by the charity Gingerbread to cost the UK's single parents around £26m. For those who stitched together their lives either from benefits alone, or work and benefits, these cumulative changes have put pressure on family budgets.
Families who can't make ends meet develop coping strategies. First this means relying on family, and friends – support networks who can chip in to help out. As these are worn away by the stress and fatigue, next comes more desperate measures – borrowing off payday lenders, and loan sharks. A report conducted as part of the Real Life Reform group estimated that poor families were clocking up £52 of debt a week. If they're lucky they'll have come into contact with a welfare agency, a sympathetic local council, or CAB advisor before things get too bad. Food banks, budgeting, and other responses do help – but they cannot solve the underlying problem of lack of income.
Free school meals
There are moves to tackle hunger in children. In the last years of the 2005-10 Labour government, several local governments piloted universal free school meals. The evidence from these pilots showed a dramatic improvement in health, and in educational attainment. Removing the stigma of claiming and eating free school meals meant the poorest children performed far better.
The plan is to roll-out universal free school meals in all primary schools from September, which should help tackle issues around nutrition and hunger. However, breakfast clubs have seen their funding cut over the past few years. Kelloggs estimated in 2011 that 3000 breakfast clubs had shut out of 20 000, and half the remaining clubs were under threat.
Outside of term-time this support does not exist. Food banks tend to see an increase in demand for childrens' food parcels in school holidays. One food bank in Bedfordshire, which I interviewed for a report, said this increase was around 75% in summer holidays, and 50% in half-term.
Child hunger will only really be tackled if we're prepared to deal with the cost of living crises. Work no longer pays enough to live, and the benefits system has been hacked at in a misguided attempted to 'encourage' people into jobs which do not pay enough to support a family. The coping mechanisms of debt, spending less, and stricter budgeting are short-term.
Free school meals, breakfast clubs, and emergency responses like food banks will go some way – but are we still just blaming the parents when the public policy supported by elected politicians is to blame? If we cannot tackle child hunger, what hope is there of dealing with the wider issue of child poverty?