Ellie Newis and Sian Norris report on the extent and impact of child poverty as Britain continues to grapple with the cost of living crisis
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Two in every five food parcels (38%) distributed by the Trussell Trust have been given to children, according to its end of year report, despite people aged 16 or under making up only 20% of the UK’s population, suggesting children are more likely to need support for hunger than adults.
The number of food parcels given out to children has almost doubled in five years, with nearly one in three children (31%) growing up in poverty. Half of children in lone parent households are now in poverty.
This is the second year in a row where the Trussell Trust has had to distribute more than two million food parcels, although the level of need in the Trussell network’s food banks was steadily rising in the years prior to the pandemic.
As food, housing and energy prices put pressure on family finances, 95% of those who use the food banks are now considered destitute, while data from the Rowntree Foundation shows that more than a million households experienced destitution during 2019. This was a 35% increase from 2017. The rate of destitution increased during the pandemic, and today destitute households contain 2.4 million people, of which 550,000 are children.
Long-term levels of need show a persistent upward trend: The Trussell Trust distributed 61,468 food parcels in 2010/11 to adults and children – a number that rose to 1.9 million in 2019/20 and to just over 2.1 million in 2021/22.
This is reflected in rates of child poverty which reached its lowest level in 2010/11, before climbing to its current high level of 31% under successive Conservative-led governments. The highest levels of poverty are in London (27%), the north-east (25%) and West Midlands (25%).
“We know that poverty is a pernicious backdrop in the day to day lives of many children,” Sarah Wayman, head of policy and research at The Children’s Society, told Byline Times.
“Not knowing if you will have enough to eat or will be warm at night has long term impacts on children’s mental health and well-being that can persist into adulthood. Even before the current cost of living crisis, nearly four million children were living in poverty, and with rising inflation and soaring food and energy bills, things are going to get worse.”
The Impact of Poverty on Children’s Lives
The scale of child poverty in the UK has profound implications for children’s health, educational outcomes, and overall wellbeing.
“Some children will worry about family finances when they see that their parents are unable to provide basics such as clothes or activities,” said Wayman. “This then can leave them open to exploitation from criminals who can take advantage and groom them with offers of cash, food and gifts like phones – then coerce them to commit crimes including drug dealing and serious violence, or sexually exploit them.”
Children growing up in poverty are more likely to struggle with tiredness and poor concentration in school, with three-quarters of teachers telling the National Education Union that pupils had come into the classroom showing signs of fatigue. This makes it harder to concentrate on lessons, while overcrowded housing and lack of digital technology mean children find it hard to study at home. Up to 1.78 million children have no home access to a computer, tablet or laptop.
Free school meals are available to pupils in England if their parents or guardians are on Universal Credit and their household income is less than £7,400 per year (after tax and not including any benefits they get), or if they are claiming some other benefits. Data from 2018 found that children on free school meals were more likely to be unemployed later in life than their wealthier peers, and more likely to be claiming state benefits, suggesting they are at risk of becoming trapped in a cycle of poverty.
More than 730,000 children are growing up in overcrowded housing. According to research by the charity Shelter, those children miss school more frequently due to illnesses and infections. Overcrowding is also linked to delayed cognitive development, while homelessness can delay development in communication skills. An estimated 120,000 children are homeless.
Poverty is further linked to mental health issues in children – young women growing up in poverty are more likely to self-harm, and children in deprived homes are more likely to feel like a failure and say they feel hopeless about their future.
Mental ill health is only part of the picture. Shockingly, those growing up in deprived households are at significantly increased risk of injury and death from accidents, including in road accidents, fires, accidental drownings and accidental poisonings. Part of the issue is a lack of safe, outdoor space to play in, while overcrowded and inadequate housing once again plays its part.
Poor housing is associated with respiratory problems in children, while urban poverty is linked to respiratory illnesses caused by air pollution. Two-year-old Awaab Ishak died after exposure to mould in his home caused flu-like symptoms, difficulty breathing, and ultimately respiratory failure. The landlord had been informed of the problems.
The growing rates of child poverty has also been linked to an increase in the number of looked after children, although it is important to note that children from all socio-economic backgrounds can go into the care system. According to research published in The Lancet, rises in child poverty fuelled by benefit cuts were associated with more than 10,000 more children being taken into care between 2015 and 2020.
“We need services that can intervene early to help families overcome money worries and other issues such as mental health concerns before they spiral out of control and have a detrimental impact on children and their health and wellbeing,” Wayman told Byline Times. "No child should end up in care just because their family is struggling financially.
“The Government must ensure more targeted support for the poorest families so they are not left in desperate situations."
This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.
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