A crisis on our doorstep: Poverty action calls grow louder

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

As the cost of living crisis continues to bite, one in seven families are being forced to share beds while half are worried about keeping their home warm for their children, disturbing new research reveals.

A study from charity Barnardo’s focused on the impact of the cost of living crisis during the winter finds that the cold weather has forced families to choose between heating their homes or purchasing food.

Meanwhile, rising interest rates have increased housing costs, putting many at risk of homelessness.

YouGov polling for the report, involving more than 1,000 parents from across the country, finds that 49% are worried about keeping their home warm while 16% say their children have had to share beds with parents or siblings because they cannot afford to replace broken beds or cannot afford enough bedding to keep children warm.

Furthermore, 23% said they have recently struggled to provide sufficient food for their children due to the cost of living crisis, while 41% said they have struggled to replace or buy an essential item like a washing machine, cooker, or furniture such as beds.

And 30% of parents are worried about being made homeless.

Inflation peaked at 11.1% in October last year and in February 2023 it was still sitting at 10.5%. The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that CPI is currently running at around 9% for the year to January 2023, while food inflation is running at almost 17% (ONS, 2023).

Government figures show that in the year to March 2021, 3.9 million children and young people (27%) were living in poverty (in families with 60% of the median UK income after housing costs). As many as 2.7 million of these were living in “deep poverty” (in families with 50% of median income).

The Barnardo’s report, entitled A crisis on our doorstep, is hard-hitting and calls for more decisive action from government on poverty.

It wants to see national government targets to reduce child poverty as well as an action plan and is calling for the extension of free school meals to all children in families receiving Universal Credit – a stepping stone to eventual universal provision of FSM for all primary pupils. The YouGov polling found that 79% of parents with a child on FSMs said that it helps with their finances.

The report states: “The cost-of-living crisis is having a severe and lasting impact on children, young people, and families across the UK. No child should grow up in poverty, yet even before the crisis intensified in 2022 the situation in the UK was critical with more than one in four children living in poverty.”

Other recommendations in the report include:

  • Extending the Holiday Food and Activities Programme to all families in receipt of Universal Credit.
  • Increasing the value of Healthy Start vouchers in line with inflation.
  • Speeding up the roll out of Mental Health Support Teams to all schools and colleges in England.
  • A total ban on forced prepayment meter installations until new protections are introduced to ensure households cannot be disconnected.

Barnardo’s works with families to provide “urgent relief”, including home appliances, items like beds or smoke detectors, helping to top up energy meters, clothing for children, and supermarket vouchers.

The charity says it has supported families where children were sleeping on cushions on floors, parents were having to limit the number of their children’s baths and turn the heating off, and parents resorting to forgoing proper meals and eating their children’s leftovers instead.

This is despite, the charity says, the families having received cost-of-living payments, warm home discount and cold winter payments.

Since October 2022, Barnardo’s has been providing immediate support to struggling families. As of February 7, this support has reached 8,795 people, including 4,992 children and 2,141 families. The overwhelming proportion of the support – 68% – is to help prevent hunger.

Barnardo’s chief executive Lynn Perry said: “Barnardo’s is supporting children who are slipping into poverty as a result of the cost-of-living crisis. Families who once had to choose between heating or eating are now worried about providing warm beds for their children or losing their homes altogether.

“As a charity we have responded by delivering clothes, appliances and vouchers to help thousands of families with everyday essentials. But we know this urgent support can only do so much.

“Children and young people were hit hard during the pandemic and many are now missing out on the basics. The government has a key opportunity with the Spring Statement next week (March 15) to step in and support families who are struggling – starting with the introduction of extending free school meals in primary schools, so that every young child has at least one hot and healthy meal.”

Commenting on the report, Rosamund McNeil, assistant general secretary of the National Education Union, said the findings showed “a neglect of the interests of children within policy-making”.

She added: “The cost-of-living crisis follows the pandemic, which significantly worsened child poverty in the UK. The government’s measures to date to combat this are inadequate. That almost a quarter of parents polled are struggling to feed their children should force policy change, immediately.

“We endorse the recommendations by Barnardo’s for universal free school meals in primary schools. Today’s report reveals a huge level of need with millions of children going hungry every day. Restrictive eligibility, complicated registration procedures and the stigma in-built into the system mean that children are missing out on existing support.

“Free school meals for all children in primary schools would put money back in parents’ pockets and is an effective way to tackle child hunger.”

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