Last week a seven-year-old girl wrote her letter to Father Christmas. She didn’t ask for much: she just wished for a home, some food, and a nice doll. “Can you help?” she wrote. “Mam wants us to be all together.”
Follow the abysmal media coverage and you would think this totally unrelated to the general election. The little girl didn’t mention Brexit and she doesn’t appear to have a view on whether Jeremy Corbyn is a ‘strong leader’. But our votes on 12 December will determine whether or not Father Christmas makes her wish come true.
Children trapped in poverty have neither a voice nor a vote in this election. Thankfully, teachers and education workers do. That’s why the National Education Union (NEU) is asking the public to use their vote to end child poverty.
An unspoken crisis.
On Monday morning when 30 children trot into the classroom to greet their teacher, many will have an empty stomach. In the average class of 30, nine children are trapped in poverty – that’s 4.1m children. In the UK in 2019, children are the most likely group to live in poverty.
Teachers and education workers like me see this every day. NEU research into its members’ experiences paints a depressing picture. According to their study, over a third of us have bought food for children who cannot afford it and 21% have even bought school uniform. Teachers shared horror stories of children begging each other for food, kids living with rat and bug infestations in their homes, and schools having to provide shampoo and basic toiletries to their pupils. Most of us have seen this increase since 2015.
Does anyone care?
There was a time when child poverty was widely discussed. In 2001, the Labour government pledged to end child poverty by 2020. There is now just one year left to meet this goal and it looks further away than ever – in fact, we are going backwards. By 2023, child poverty is predicted to be the highest since records began.
This government simply does not care, or at least it accepts no responsibility. In 2010 there was cross-party consensus to put child poverty targets into law. This law was abolished in 2016 and just last week the Conservative home secretary, Priti Patel, claimed that the government is simply not responsible.
What is the government for then? If it cannot take responsibility for protecting impoverished children – surely an unambiguously vulnerable group – then who is it responsible for?
How did this happen? And how can we stop it?
In reality, of course, government policy is to blame. Three specific factors jump out. First are the spiralling housing costs in the private rented sector, which are not matched by housing benefit entitlements. Second is the rise of precarious and low-paid jobs with little prospect for progression (bars, restaurants, shops, etc). Third is the reduction of in-work benefits and tax credits which support parents on low pay.
This is not rocket science: higher costs, lower pay and attacks on social security together produce greater poverty.
It is not difficult to work out how to solve this problem. In fact, NEU members identified some simple strategies. By a large margin, the most popular suggestion was to improve family support services like Sure Start, which has been dramatically cut since the Tory-Lib Dem coalition entered government in 2010. The NEU is also calling for reforms to Universal Credit and child benefit, more local job opportunities and investment in our crumbling youth services. In short, parents need decent jobs, adequate benefits, and properly funded services to support them.
This year saw the publication of It’s a No-Money Day – a picture book for under-fives which follows a young girl’s trip to a food bank with her mum. In just 20 years, child poverty has transformed from a universally-recognised evil to an accepted part of modern life, normal enough to feature in a children’s book.
It doesn’t have to be like this. We can free the children trapped in poverty. And we can start right now. In this election, let’s raise the profile of child poverty. Let’s make sure every voter is thinking about it when they make their decision. And let’s elect a government that will finally rid us of the evil.
James McAsh is a primary school teacher and Labour councillor.
The specific number of children trapped in poverty in each parliamentary constituency is available on the End Child Poverty website.