Prepare the following article for translation in the tutorials


Universal credit has left children so undernourished schools are offering free breakfasts

It’s half past eight, and the school day is just starting at Morecambe Bay Primary, a state-run school in northwest England. Siobhan Collingwood, the headteacher, points to a cheerful boy munching his way through two slices of toast – his first meal of the day.

Teachers, she says, sometimes find him sifting through trash cans for discarded fruit. “He’d eat his way through whatever we put in front of him.”

Some students trickle through without stopping; they’ve already eaten. But a few dozen head straight to the food counter. Of 350 students, roughly one in three would not have breakfast unless the school provided it, Collingwood reckons.
During Collingwood’s 13 years as headteacher at Morecambe Bay Primary, there have always been a few hungry children. But two years ago, the staff noticed an increasing number of youngsters returning undernourished after spending school breaks at home.

Initially, Collingwood and her staff were puzzled. Many parents held jobs, even if they struggled to cover the bills. Then it dawned on them that the rising number of hungry children at Morecambe Bay coincided with sharp reductions in welfare benefits associated with the clumsy introduction of a new welfare programme.

“As we spoke to parents,” Collingwood says, “it became clear that for many of them, it was caused by changes to the benefit system rolled out in recent years, which were forcing families into crisis.”

Across Britain, the number of children living in poverty has jumped sharply in the past six years, a trend that critics blame in part on the government’s policy of austerity, the budget-slashing response to the 2008 financial crisis steadily reshaping British life.

And there is no immediate relief on the horizon. The County Councils Network, a group of local governing bodies, warned recently of £1bn in budget cuts nationwide next year, draining more money from social services, including some for children.

To be clear, Britain is not Venezuela. Reports of hungry children showing up in Morecambe doctors’ offices with rickets have proved false. But that is cold comfort in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, one that over the years has made a strong commitment to child welfare.

While hunger is not the only social pathology associated with childhood poverty, it is perhaps the hardest to conceal. In that respect, it is a flashing signal of a deepening problem.

For children, the consequences of poverty can be severe. In the short term, poverty elevates the risk of illness, hunger and social stigma. In the long term, it can create a vicious cycle from which a child struggles to escape, especially in class-conscious Britain.

British teenagers from disadvantaged backgrounds are roughly a third as likely to achieve good GCSE grades, according to government statistics.

They are then roughly half as likely to go to university, according to a separate set of government data. Those who do make it are less likely to get a better paid job within six months of graduation than those from more privileged backgrounds. And they are less likely to make it into high status professions, such as finance, law or medicine.

Even those who do crack the “class ceiling” earn an average of 16 per cent less than more privileged peers, researchers at the London School of Economics found.
And those from poorer backgrounds are likely to die around five years earlier than those who are not, government data suggests.

Before the financial crisis in 2008 and the subsequent budget squeeze, successive British governments, both Conservative and Labour, achieved progress on childhood poverty. The number of minors living in “relative poverty” – families with an annual household income less than 60 per cent of the national median, after housing costs – fell by roughly 800,000 to 3.5 million between 1998 and 2012, or 27 per cent of all Britons aged 16 or younger.

But the same year that parliament passed the Welfare Reform Act, a central plank of the austerity programme, the trend began to reverse. Since 2012, about 600,000 children have fallen back into “relative poverty”. During the same period, the number of children requiring food handouts from the Trussell Trust, the country’s largest network of food banks, more than tripled, to over 484,000 from nearly 127,000.

Overall, since returning to power in 2010, the Conservatives have announced more than £30bn in benefit cuts and abandoned prior targets to substantially reduce child poverty by 2020.

By 2021, roughly 35 per cent of all minors in Britain are predicted to be poor, according to forecasts by the Institute for Fiscal Studies. And the country’s pending departure from the European Union may deepen the problem, because of rising living costs and the sudden loss of funding from Brussels for young people, according to a joint assessment by seven leading children’s charities.

In November, the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty Philip Alston will make an official visit to Britain to research the connection between the austerity programme and the rise in poverty – the first such visit to Britain by a United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty.

“It’s increasingly evident, particularly to people working with children, that we’re in a child poverty crisis,” says Alison Garnham, chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, a British charity. “And it is primarily to do with the massive cuts to benefits.”

The Conservative Party leaders who pushed through the austerity programme dispute that it is the cause of rising child poverty, or that child poverty is increasing. They argue that universal credit – the new system that bundles most payments into one – is an improvement.

The new system is “infinitely better than what it replaced”, says Iain Duncan Smith, the Conservative former cabinet minister who oversaw the changes. “The process of stepping into work is easier.”

That rationale is being questioned. Though unemployment has been more than halved under the Conservatives, the overall child poverty rate has risen. And roughly two-thirds of poor children have at least one parent who works, the Institute for Fiscal Studies says.

“We tell ourselves completely the wrong story about poverty in the UK,” Garnham says. “The government likes to focus attention on workless families, but there’s hardly any left. That’s a problem of the past.”