‘Rent is driving many families into destitution’: why are 4 million children living in poverty? | The last 10 years of food banks

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It’s not the start in life anyone plans for their child, and yet according to analysis from the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), there were 4.3 million children living in poverty in the UK in 2019-20, which equates to 31% of children, or nine in a classroom of 30. For larger families, this number rises to 42%. And for black and minority ethnic groups the figures are even more stark: almost half (46%) are now in poverty, compared with 26% of children in white British families.

In 1979, sociologist Peter Townsend, a founding member of CPAG, formulated a definition of poverty still widely accepted as the standard today: “Individuals, families and groups in the population can be said to be in poverty when they lack resources to obtain the type of diet, participate in the activities and have the living conditions and amenities which are customary, or at least widely encouraged and approved, in the societies in which they belong.”

Social change charity the Joseph Rowntree Foundation defines relative income poverty more specifically as when households have “less than 60% of contemporary median income”.

Cost of living
The coronavirus pandemic is, of course, a factor. Between 2018/19 and 2019/20, the Trussell Trust, a charity committed to ending poverty and hunger, noted a 49% increase in the number of children supported by food banks in its network. In total, 370,000 households were supported by food banks in the charity’s network in 2019/20 – and those households included 320,000 children.

“We had been seeing disproportionately large numbers of children at food banks over the last few years,” says Emma Revie, chief executive of the Trussell Trust. “It was definitely exacerbated and accelerated during the pandemic, where we saw more and more children coming in at a higher rate.” And while the economic shock produced by the pandemic goes some way to explaining this rise, Revie says it doesn’t explain the whole picture.

“There has not really been a change in the reasons why people are going to food banks during the pandemic,” she says, adding that existing issues have just been exacerbated. “We saw more people being unable to work either through ill health or through loss of job, more people coming on to social security, and more people finding that social security was insufficient to keep them out of destitution and therefore coming to the food bank.”

Boxout

The pre-existing conditions Revie refers to are the result of a combination of systemic failures in our social security system, which are making life impossible for many families. Among some of the biggest drivers pushing people deeper into poverty, she says, are the introduction of the two-child limit and the benefits cap, which disproportionately affect larger families.

“Even though their benefit calculation states families with children should receive a higher level of benefits to enable them to afford the essentials,” she says, “it’s artificially capped, the result of which is more children finding themselves in families experiencing poverty.”

In-work poverty
Poverty in working households is also pushing many families over the edge, where a combination of low-paid work, stagnating wages and zero-hours contracts make income precarious. This type of poverty was exacerbated hugely by the pandemic, which forced many in the informal economy into destitution. For these people and many of the self-employed, government support grants to help keep families afloat were either slow to come or not available at all, exposing huge failures in the social support systems designed to help people out of poverty.

At the same time, the cost of living continues to rise at a rate higher than we’ve seen in a decade. Inflation, which recently hit 4.2% – and is forecast to hit 5% by the end of the year – is hitting those with the least the hardest when it comes to their purchasing power. This winter, the Trussell Trust expects an acute spike in fuel prices to further exacerbate this pressure, putting parents in the position of choosing between heating their homes and feeding their children; a decision no parent should ever have to make.

And that’s before you even take into account the UK’s housing crisis and rising price of rents, and the pressure this is putting on everyone, but especially people who are some of the most deprived in our society. “We know that many times when people go to food banks, it’s because their housing support through the social security system isn’t enough to cover their rent,” says Revie.

Of course, she explains, the number one priority for most families is keeping a roof over their head, so when private rental costs rise faster than the social security payments designed to cover those costs, this drives “many, many people into destitution”.

A broken system
The result of all of this is a gap between the need for help and the level of support available to provide it. In terms of what is needed to remedy the situation, or at the very least improve it, Revie has a few ideas. “We know that the £20 uplift to universal credit that was applied at the start of the pandemic – and that was recently revoked – prevented many people from having to come to food banks, so we need to be looking at the sufficiency of our social security,” she says.

Policymakers serious about addressing child poverty must confront the glaring reality of the millions of families who are struggling and think practically about what is actually needed, she adds. “If I had a policy that could be implemented immediately, it would be looking at the value of social security and the accessibility of the support we provide to people to navigate the system to ensure they get their full entitlements,” she says. “We find through some of our services in food banks that we’re providing specialist benefits advice and are aware that many people aren’t getting their full entitlement.”

An example she gives is of parents caring for a disabled child, who are entitled to extra allowance. “They’re struggling with Pip [personal independence payment] applications that are being turned down, and then have been turned over on appeal. We need to make the system accessible and we need to be supporting people to get their full entitlements.”

Without this, she says, we are failing people most in need. “We need to make sure what is being provided is actually sufficient to hold people out of destitution.”

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