A generation of poorer children will never recover from the “cruel blow” the coronavirus pandemic has dealt to low-income families unless the government urgently draws up a plan to help them get back on their feet, the Children’s Commissioner has warned.
Millions of youngsters in low-income households across Britain have fallen behind their peers academically as a result of school closures and been pushed deeper into economic hardship due to job losses among parents. The issue was brought to national attention earlier this year by Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford, who has campaigned for free school meals during school holidays.
In an interview with The Independent, the children’s commissioner, Anne Longfield, called on the government to act with urgency to establish a “robust and determined” recovery programme to help disadvantaged children catch up in school, support them with mental health issues and provide extra help for their families.
Asked what is at stake if action isn’t taken, Ms Longfield said: “There is literally a generation of poor children who will never recover from the blow of the pandemic, and they will never recover in terms of their education or their economic prosperity in years to come.
“Their prospects were very uncertain before the pandemic, but the pandemic has dealt on them a really cruel blow, and it will affect their life chances. It will live with them throughout life, I’m sure about that.
“And this isn’t only devastating for those children and their families; it’s devastating for wider society, because it will have an impact on everything our country can achieve as a whole.”
The latest government figures on child poverty show 4.2 million under-16s live below the poverty line – 30 per cent of the UK’s child population, and 600,000 more than the figure in 2011/12.
These figures were recorded before the pandemic hit. While the government has introduced some welcome measures to soften the economic impact on families, such as the weekly £20 uplift on universal credit payments, experts say child poverty levels are likely to have increased during the public health crisis.
In June, researchers from the Institute for Public Policy Research think tank found it was highly plausible that over 1 million more people, including 200,000 children, would be below the poverty line compared to a situation where the pandemic had not occurred, by the end of the year.
Another indication that the pandemic is exacerbating child poverty is the fact that more than 2,500 food parcels were given to children each day during the first six months of the pandemic by the Trussell Trust, the UK’s largest food bank provider – a 52 per cent rise on the same period last year.
The pandemic has shone a cruel spotlight on the inequalities that children have been experiencing for a long time. For the first time a lot more people understood what that meant
Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield
Ms Longfield, who has been children’s commissioner since 2015 and is due to leave the post early next year, said she did not believe that ministers were responding to the issue on the scale of what was needed.
“It won’t be a quick fix, but it has to start now. It needs to move from ad-hoc sticking plaster responses to really having a coherent determinate plan,” she said.
“It needs to be part of that legacy of building back better. It needs to move from a concept into a plan, and the plan needs to start with kids. Put the support in place to enable this and future generations to be able to flourish.”
The Commissioner said that as a starting point, government must extend the £20 a week uplift to universal credit – announced in April in response to the pandemic – until beyond next April, and remove the two-child limit, which prevents parents from receiving benefits for a third or subsequent child.
However, she was quick to point out that in order to turn the tide of rising child poverty in Britain, there needed to be a shift in the government’s approach to tackling the issue: “At the moment government is addressing symptoms of poverty, and they don’t get to the root causes.”
Ms Longfield said that while there were various interventions available to help low income children and families, they tended to be delivered in isolation and without coordination with one another.
“It’s a disjointed set of responses which, taken on their own, are well-meaning, but they all come from different government departments, and there’s no follow through from any one agency who identifies kids who need help and follows them as they grow up,” she said.
“The government at a high level needs to make the reduction of poverty for children a major priority, because otherwise it ends up being a series of reactive responses from different departments.”
The commissioner praised Manchester footballer Marcus Rashford for his ardent campaigning for free school meals during the holidays, and for the wave of community support that followed – but warned that to incite real change, it needed to come from the top.
“We’ve settled into this notion where we’re used to seeing this kind of thing. I don’t think we should get used to that being the norm. Food poverty is the last line of defence to a much bigger problem,” she said.
“It comes back to a government’s responsibility to be able to help society flourish. The pandemic has shone a cruel spotlight on the inequalities that children have been experiencing for a long time. For the first time a lot more people understood what that meant.”
Children’s charities echoed the commissioners concern about the lack of a “long-term strategy” that will get to the “root” of child poverty, and said the “crucial first step” for supporting families during the pandemic was to make the £20-a-week uplift in universal credit permanent.
They welcomed the government’s decision earlier this month to lay on £170m of extra funding to councils to provide free meals to disadvantaged children during the Christmas holidays, prompted by Rashford’s campaign, but said much more needed to be done.
Azmina Siddique, policy and research manager for the Children’s Society, said: “A decade of austerity has taken its toll on families across the UK, and we are only just beginning to see the additional impact of the pandemic. With unemployment on the rise and another economic recession on the way, we are facing the perfect storm.”
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Anna Feuchtwang, chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau, welcomed the recent measures, but added: “There’s much more that needs to be done to tackle child poverty. We need a cross-government approach that considers how to put more money in the pockets of hard-pressed families in the long-term.”
Action for Children’s director of policy and campaigns, Imran Hussain, echoed her remarks, saying that in order to prevent children from being “scarred by poverty”, the government needed a “credible child poverty strategy”, adding: “This generation of children are growing up in the long shadows cast by austerity and the pandemic. Their childhoods and life chances are in real jeopardy.”
A government spokesperson said: “We are committed to supporting low income families, responding to the pandemic with an extra £9.3bn in welfare support as well as a further £400m, including funding to help families stay well-fed this winter while also expanding the Holiday Activities and Food programme for children on free school meals.”