“Please, Sir, I want some more.”
The words of Charles Dickens’ character, the orphan, Oliver Twist begging for more gruel immortalized the grinding poverty so common during Britain’s Industrial Revolution.
Now, 180 years later, it is a shock to find children still going hungry in one of the richest countries in the world.
But that is the situation being reported by teachers in communities across the UK – children arriving at school so hungry that they are filling their pockets with food, or even scouring bins for scraps.
Food insecurity among children
Siobhan Collingwood, a headteacher at a primary school in Morecambe in Lancashire, told the BBC that she has seen pupils arriving with nothing in their lunchboxes, and parents bursting into tears because they have no means of feeding their children.
Unfortunately, her story is not unique. Other teachers have reported children who are thin, with “grey skin, poor teeth, poor hair”, tired by 9.30am because they haven’t eaten.
The UK is the world’s fifth-biggest economy, with a GDP per capita four times the global average. Yet, UNICEF figures show 19% of children under 15 in the UK live with adults who struggle to buy food – among the worst rates in Europe, but on par with the United States.
Although the UK government provides all children with free school meals for the first three years of their education (up to the age of seven), Prime Minister Theresa May was forced to abandon plans to scrap those free meals after the 2017 election. Free school meals are provided to all children of any age whose parent or carer qualifies for income-related benefits.
And in fact, the figures suggest the number of children eligible for free school meals has actually fallen, as the number of benefit claimants has decreased.
In work but in poverty
Changes to benefits since the election of the Conservative-led government in 2010 have proved controversial. The government itself argues that work is the best route out of poverty, and that the welfare system should be designed to encourage people into work. And indeed it can point to record numbers of people in employment.
But ministers have admitted there are significant issues with the roll-out of the flagship Universal Credit welfare reform, with reports of delays in payments, and many families receiving less than previously. The often highly charged debate even prompted Ken Loach’s award-winning film I, Daniel Blake.
The charity Child Poverty Action Group claims that 30% of children in the UK live in poverty – that’s 4.1 million children. Particularly surprising is their finding that 67% of children in poverty live in a household where someone works.
That is evidence of a growing trend: people who have jobs, but who still struggle to afford the basics.
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The rise of food banks
Food banks – charities that rely on donations to provide meals to those who cannot afford them – were once a rarity in the UK. Now they are an increasingly common feature of life for many families. And while the majority of the people referred to them are on benefits, one in six are in work.
Perhaps the most scathing criticism has come from UN Special Rapporteur Professor Philip Alston, who reported on what he found on a visit to the UK at the end of last year. In his words, the level of child poverty in the UK is “not just a disgrace, but a scandal and an economic disaster.”
His visit also highlighted the growing divide between rich and poor in the UK, which the World Economic Forum noted in its Inclusive Development Index 2018.
The index ranked the UK 21st overall, indicating that the country is falling behind its peers in areas including GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy and, in particular, wealth inequality.