60 years since our first child poverty campaign we compare then and now – and see how much has stayed the same, or become worse, as the UK has more foodbanks than branches of McDonald’s
Sixty years ago today, the world began a campaign against child poverty and cruelty.
How the nation has changed since then – and how much it has stayed the same!
In 1960, the UK was still recovering from rationing and austerity in the wake of the Second World War.
The NHS was just a dream coming true and the welfare state was in its infancy. There was work but wages and living standards were low.
My mother used to say if she had three pence in her purse at the end of the week, she was happy.
People had a mortal dread of debt and fought shy of buying anything on the “never-never”.
I was growing up in a mining town nine miles south of Leeds. But I wouldn’t swap my childhood for today’s stressed-out adolescence.
We weren’t “deprived” because there was nothing to be deprived of.
Everything was still “on the ration”: food, clothes, furniture. Nobody in our street had a telephone, or a car.
You used the public phone box in Market Square and took the bus. Only one house, the Wilsons, had a TV, and that was black and white. They once let me watch the cup final.
You shopped at the Co-op, and I still remember my mam’s shopping list: sugar, butter, marg, lard, cheese.
Because nobody had very much, there was precious little to be envious about. There were no foodbanks and rough sleeping was unheard of.
Life was simpler.
Us kids played games like “kick out can” with an old tin out on the street till late evening and obesity was rare.
We might have been scruffs but we were healthy scruffs. We didn’t sit in dark bedrooms playing violent computer games or posting indecent images.
Your dad was down the pit or on the railway. Your mother – these were the days of two-parent families – worked in a shop or clothing factory, or stayed at home. Councils were building houses for rent as fast as the bricks could be delivered. The waiting list wasn’t bottomless, like today.
All that has changed, and rarely for the better. Babies may not get tuberculosis like I did but youngsters today are battered with images of plenty their parents simply can’t deliver: smartphones, computer games and the latest trainers costing a small fortune. Things they don’t really need but feel they should have as slick marketing tells them so.
Arguably, poverty is worse now, more difficult to bear because kids are more aware of their deprivation. “It’s not envy, it’s longing” explains Nathanya Laurent, development manager at Leeds South-East Food Bank. “Children feel isolated because they see wealth only a few minutes away.
“They see high-rise glass buildings and they feel they are not welcome. They don’t come into the city because they feel is isn’t for them. And poverty is far harder now. Children are under pressure from their peers to have the latest something and parents have to make difficult choices as to what they can provide.”
Backed by the End Child Poverty Coalition, charities, politicians and unions, we also want the Government to restore child tax credits, scrap the two-child limit and axe the benefit cap.
From where they live, the children of the poor can see the wealth of booming Leeds: a tantalising glimpse of luxury flats and gleaming office towers marching across the skyline. But it’s not for them. They live in a “two nations” city, the finance capital of the North that belongs to somebody else.
They might as well be in the Third World. In fact, too many of them are.
The palace of opulence, the Harvey Nichols store, sits almost cheek by jowl with foodbanks.
The statistics are revealing. Poverty is estimated to affect 173,000 people and 20% are children – almost 34,000.
And two-thirds of them live in a household where at least one parent is in work.
They are concentrated in inner-city neighbourhoods, where Leeds was once the ready-made clothing capital of Britain and manufacturer of engineering goods for export to the world. To its shame – or credit, depending on your point of view – the city is now home to 29 foodbanks.
Of those seeking help and on Universal Credit , 41% were awaiting their first payment, 43% were having deductions and 34% were in rent arrears
One in four is no better off under UC and demand has gone beyond food to toiletries, sanitary products and
Project manager Wendy Doyle goes into schools to educate children about managing money. “In one primary, I asked them, if they had #20,000 to spend, what would they spend it on. They said the first priority is the mobile phone. If they could only pay one bill? They said – the phone.”
No wonder young people are confused and succumb to mental illness. When that happens, help is virtually unobtainable. “Getting access to mental health trusts is very hard,” confides Wendy. “Waiting lists can be months and months to get support.”
That’s what the anti-poverty campaigners are up against.
Dave Paterson, of church group Unity in Poverty Action, says: “Child poverty is a major issue. However, parents, teachers, youth and health workers, food aid providers and countless charities are bringing hope into the lives of children in these difficult times.
“For many of us working it is a privilege to be part of a project where people work together to support the poorest children.”
The situation worsens in school holidays. “We see children eating nothing but bread and margarine. We put food on the table and provide games and activities, helping 5,000 children.”
It’s important, he argues, to value the basic community – family. “However, the family looks very different to 50 years ago. Friendship and listening is the best sort of help you can get.”
One parent who has benefited from this approach is, a father of six who came to the foodbank after a nine-week delay in getting any benefits.
“I was on Universal Credit but no matter how much I pleaded at the Jobcentre, they didn’t listen. I had to come to the foodbank and eventually I got work here,” he said.
Charities and churches are tackling despair and the council’s child poverty strategy, titled Thriving, will run until 2022, with a unique Child Poverty Impact Board.
Cllr Fiona Venner, executive member for children and families, says: “Child poverty halved under the last Labour government but has risen under 10 years of austerity.
“There are now more foodbanks than branches of McDonald’s in Britain.
“As a Labour council, we cannot lift children out of poverty, but we are determined to do everything we can to mitigate child poverty.”