“My sole concern as I write these lines is my stomach. All thinking and feeling, all wishes and hopes begin with food.”
So writes the anonymous author of the most harrowing war-time diary I have ever read: A Woman in Berlin. Even though she is writing as the Russians approach in 1945 and the infrastructure of German society has all but collapsed, her recognition of the need for food applies always and everywhere. And today, here in affluent England, if children come to school hungry, it is a stupid person who thinks that child is going to be able to learn and grow and concentrate and thrive.
So, it is good news that the Deputy Prime Minister has announced this evening that all infant school children are to be served free school meals from some time in 2014. In fact, the Children's Society briefed the Anglican bishops meeting in Oxford just before the announcement. Unmitigated good news on a day when we had been taking a sobering and serious look at children, young people, education and schools. The effects of poverty sat high in our consciousness.
Here is the context:
- 3.5 million children live in poverty in the UK (after housing costs have been deducted).
- Around 1.9 children live in workless households in the UK – higher than in any other European Union country.
- Yet, 63% of all children in low income households live in families where at least one of the adults is in paid work. (But, this doesn't spell out that so many of these 'paid jobs' are part-time or very low-paid.)
- In 1979 c.14% of children lived in poverty; in 2012 it had risen to 27%.
- Rather than eradicating child poverty by 2020 (a government commitment in the Cild Poverty Act), it is estimated by the Institute for Fiscal Studies that the figure will increase by 800,000 – which means that by 2020 one in three children in the UK will be living in poverty.
Shocking? Or acceptable?
Food bank reports indicate that most people come to food banks on their way home from work. Which bangs another nail into the shameful and misleading political categorising of poor people into 'benefit scroungers' – those who refuse to work and cost the country millions. This lie has traction in the country at large, but the evidence points to serious problems for poor people who do work.
So, what about the children? Good news about the free school meals – whatever the political motivation behind announcing it today – and news that highlights the importance of food and the iniquity of poverty for a society that wants its children to grow into educated, creative and altruistic citizens.
Now, what about the other children in our schools? And what about tackling the causes of the child poverty that the government, by announcing its policy today, has explicitly acknowledged?