It feels like it was only yesterday that I was writing about the reality of life as a low income family in the wake of Marcus Rashford’s campaign to feed the UK’s hungry school children. In reality, it has been 3 months and the situation is probably more dire now than it was before.
On the 5th January 2021, the UK was plunged in to another national lockdown which, although not entirely unexpected, has come with huge challenges for families. For some families, the news that schools would be closed has brought more heartache than it has for others. Those who receive free school meals often rely on it as a guarantee that their children will get to eat at least one nutritional and filling meal a day. Suddenly, that was put in to question again with the announcement that vouchers would not be issued and instead food parcels would be delivered.
Let me be very clear about this, families who live on or below the poverty line DO NOT choose to be poor. Often, there are difficult circumstances, family hardships and medical problems which lead them down this path. It is never a choice. The last 12 months has seen millions more families plunged in to poverty than ever before. Self-employed workers have found themselves suddenly unable to work, there have been millions of redundancies and those who relied on every penny of their wages have found that it is impossible to make ends meet when their income is 20% lower due to furlough.
The situation has become so extreme that, for the first time in it’s 70 year history, UNICEF announced that they would be working to feed UK children. Read that sentence again. Yes, I said UNICEF. A charity which normally goes to war-torn third-world countries and provides famine relief. They are now working in one of the richest countries in the world to help feed children.
Today, there has been outrage when images of food packages surfaced across social media. These packages, which had been provided by a company employed by the government had been sent to children who qualified for the national Free School Meal scheme. Each parcel supposedly had a value of £30 and were meant to last for up 10 days. On closer inspection, many of the parcels have a value of less than £10 each and barely enough food to cover 1 meal a day, for one child, for a week.
Since the images were picked up by national and local news networks, I have seen the usual variety of responses. Everything from shared outrage that there is no way the parcels were sufficient or acceptable, to those who feel that the people receiving these packages should just ‘shut up and be grateful’. I was listening to the radio on my way to pick up some essential food shopping this evening and heard one caller talking about how their parents had a large family of 7 children and managed without benefits, so everyone else should just get on with things too.
But, it’s not as simple as that. There is a very good reason why large families (and small families) could manage better in the past than they can now. According to inflationtool.com, since 1970, inflation in the UK has risen by 1,246% which means that for every £1,000 you had in 1970, you would need £1,346 now. It works out to be an average inflation rate of 5.23% per year. In contrast, a report by the ONS showed that the value of wages has been falling by an average of 2.2% per year since the 1980’s. The two facts combined means that the cost of living has consistently increased over the last 50 years and the value of wages has decreased. People quite simply can’t afford to live comfortably anymore. A genuine example of this would be the value baked beans that I used to buy. 8 years ago when I started getting online food deliveries, the beans would cost me 9p per tin. Now, they are 24p per tin which is an increase of over 150% in the last 8 years. It may seem small, but those increases have been felt across all areas of the economy. Food, housing, gas and electricity bills, petrol costs, they have all risen enormously while wages have been unable to catch up. Food banks, which didn’t even exist 20 years ago, now provide emergency food parcels to millions of people every year with more branches opening every month and the current pandemic leading to more users than ever before.
I am starting to wonder what it is going to take for the government to realise that something has to be done about the situation. Not just a sticking plaster to make them look good, but actual, genuine change. A living wage that people can actually live on, real help for those families who are struggling that doesn’t involve penalising them when they find work as the current Universal Credit system does.
Maybe we need Bob Geldof to organise a music concert for the starving children of the UK.