Jayne Dowle: Child poverty is closer to home than you may think

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When someone says “poverty” what do you imagine? A Dickensian workhouse scene? A family huddled together around one bar of an electric fire to keep warm? No food in the cupboards, a bare floor and only one or two toys? Whatever your imagination conjures up, did you know that almost a quarter of all children in Yorkshire live in “poverty”? And that child poverty is worse in our region than anywhere else in the UK, according to the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission’s second annual state of the nation report?

This is bad enough. However, did you know that a family with two adults and two children under 13 needs to have £317 a week, after paying for housing, to live above the poverty line? I didn’t. I am shocked. By that reckoning – these figures come from the children’s charity Barnado’s – a good proportion of the families I know in Barnsley are existing either just on or under this measure. It throws all our assumptions about poverty up in the air. It’s not necessarily something which happens to other people.

This sum, which works out at under £12 per person per day, needs to cover all of a family’s day-to-day expenditure, including necessities such as food and transport. It also needs to pay for all household bills, gas, electricity, water, telephone and the TV licence. And “occasional items” such as new shoes and clothes, replacing broken items such as washing machines and kitchen equipment, and activities such as school trips. That’s not to mention birthdays and Christmas.

The median hourly pay in Yorkshire is £10.59 per hour, nine per cent lower than the UK average. Now, you don’t need much more information than that to work out that a family where one adult works full-time on or around the minimum wage and another has a part-time job, is going to be struggling. Even with any benefits that they might be entitled to, there won’t be much room for manoeuvre. No wonder so many people fall prey to payday loan companies and end up spiralling into debt, just to cover their daily needs.

A recent report by the insurance company Aviva found that household debt levels are at an all-time high. The average family is £13,000 in the red. Living beyond their means? Or desperate to find a way to make ends meet and keep a roof over their head? It doesn’t do to judge.

It’s not just about the pounds and pence. Living in poverty means limited life chances for thousands of children. It’s about the big things, such as poor educational attainment and lack of aspiration. And it’s also about the little things. Such as choice.

Imagine telling your child that they couldn’t take a packed lunch to school because you can’t afford it, when school dinners are either cheaper or free? Yet, I know this conversation happens, because my nine-year-old daughter, Lizzie, tells me so.

When she and her friends got sick of lumpy mashed potato and small portions earlier this term, I went ahead and substituted her dinner money for a fresh sandwich, a healthy snack and drink, and she’s happier for it. Not all her friends are as lucky though. Some will be relying on that school dinner as their only meal of the day.

When politicians pontificate about the cost of living, but can’t even calculate the price of an average weekly shop, do you think they realise that these are the kind of conversations ordinary families are having? The Prime Minister, in response to this new report, replies that child poverty is at its lowest for 30 years. Is he living in a different country from the rest of us? Does he travel around in a bubble?

And what about other political leaders? It is not enough for Nick Clegg to say that, “the Conservatives have basically decided to turn their back on child poverty.” He must speak out, and so must Ed Miliband. I’d like to see the issue put right to the front of every manifesto at the General Election.

It’s true, some recent measures have gone some way towards alleviating the financial pressure. For example, raising the income tax threshold will help families relying on a low wage. However, getting to grips with poverty on such an endemic scale is about more than formulating policies. It’s about politicians developing a thorough understanding of how lack of money affects daily life and cripples opportunities for our
most vulnerable members of society, children. To do this, they must take heed, and listen, really listen to what campaigners are saying about life on the breadline.

Every one of us should be shocked at this report. What is even more worrying though is the fact that this perilous situation is going to get worse. The Social Mobility and Child Poverty commission, led by former Labour cabinet minister Alan Milburn, predicts an unprecedented rise in child poverty over the next decade, thanks to the double blow of welfare cuts and low pay.

If you always thought that child poverty was someone else’s problem, it is time to think again.

Jayne Dowle