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Our entire nation is gripped by poverty – here’s how to tackle it

Child poverty rates in the north-east have overtaken London, but the crisis is country-wide, writes the North of Tyne mayor.

By Jamie Driscoll

“I don’t have the education of a politician,” said the footballer Marcus Rashford, “but I have a social education, having lived through this and having spent time with the families and children most affected. These children matter.” 

Lived experience provides a focus that cuts through policy briefings and political spin. There is no substitute for seeing something up close. I’ve lived through poverty, although not for some decades. My children haven’t, and I hope they never do. 

Last week, a report from the End Child Poverty coalition showed 38 per cent of the north-east’s children live in poverty. The region has surpassed London, which is now on 35 per cent. The media has focused on the regional inequality, which is real, but even in the south-east, where England’s child poverty rate is the lowest, it’s 24 per cent. Our entire nation is gripped by a poverty crisis.  

Poverty dominates your life. It narrows your focus. Your life’s horizon becomes paying the next bill. Stress levels rise. Your friendships deteriorate. You can’t afford bus fare. And where can you go that’s free these days, anyway?  Like Sam Vimes’ boots in the Terry Pratchett novel Men at Arms, living hand to mouth is expensive.  The cold and damp damages your health. Your energy tariff is higher. Your bank stings you for going overdrawn. Worst of all, you lose agency. You are fed into a machine of means testing, made to justify every penny. 

If your family is going through that, then how can a child not be disadvantaged? School leaders tell me that mental ill health and emotional problems are endemic. Yet it’s a two-year wait for a Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services appointment. What problems is austerity storing up for the future? 

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Statistically, 38 per cent means in every class of 30 kids, 11 live in poverty. But statistics are not real life. I know schools where nearly all the kids are in poverty, and those where none of them are. Child poverty correlates with every other measure of deprivation. It is, by definition, a product of wealth inequality. 

Poverty is messy, and it’s systemic. Income is at its heart, of course, but so much else feeds into it. Nearly half of those in poverty are disabled or live with a disabled person. Almost half of UK food bank users are in debt to the Department for Work and Pensions. We have a Tory MP claiming people can cook meals for 30p, while 49 per cent of England’s working-age population have the numeracy level we’d expect of primary school children. Possibly including him. 

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Within the statistics, there are real children, real families, real lives. That’s why my combined authority, the North of Tyne, set up the Poverty Truth Commission, to bring together community, civic and business organisations with those who have lived experience of poverty. This helps us better understand the on-the-ground practical solutions people need. 

Last year, the North of Tyne established our Child Poverty Prevention Programme. We co-designed it by listening to North East Child Poverty Commission, schools and parents. The programme is overseen by my North of Tyne Combined Authority cabinet colleague Karen Kilgour. It is focused on three places: the kids’ classrooms, the school gates and parents’ place of work.

In the classroom we are working with 30 schools this year. We’re adding another 60 next academic year. Interventions include “poverty-proofing” school uniform policy, providing free after-school clubs, and helping families with cooking and finances. Over 2,500 children and families are benefitting.

Now for the school gates. We’re running a pilot that supports families in poverty by bringing welfare rights advice into the familiar, safe setting of a school. We know teachers and staff have tight, trusting relationships with parents, often providing them with guidance about issues unrelated to school and education. Struggling parents can receive advice and referrals to further help before they have even left the school gates.

Finally, we’re working with employers, too. The sad truth is, work is not always a route out of poverty. Nearly three in four kids in poverty are from working families. With our partner, the social enterprise Society Matters, we’ll support more than 30 businesses across the region to develop an anti-poverty strategy by autumn 2023, helping 2,000 parents. 

We’re creating thousands of jobs, all paying at least the “real living wage”. Our skills programme leaves no one behind: there’s individual coaching and support for people with autism or neurodiversity; young people who have had a tough start in life; and adults with complex needs around mental illness and substance abuse. 

But it’s like bailing out the Titanic with a bucket. Wealth inequality is not a side effect of the way our economy is run; it is the objective. Everything about public policy, tax breaks, financial deregulation and rising asset bubbles screams “get rich, Devil take the hindmost!”

Wealth inequality is poverty. That’s the truth of trickle-down economics. Tory leadership hopefuls are competing in an auction of how much they would cut the state, yet our frontline services are broken. Since 2010, the north’s local authorities have lost £413 per person per year in central government funding. That’s £6bn a year. Despite higher than ever taxes on working people, poverty spirals out of control while billionaires are raking it in. 

How do we fix it? Central government holds the financial and policy firepower. Anyone serious about eradicating child poverty must accept the following policy positions or propose a better alternative: first, restore the £20 Universal Credit uplift immediately, and index link benefits; second, remove the two-child limit – punishing a child for having siblings is grotesque; three, raise the legal minimum wage to match the “real living wage”, which is currently £9.90 per hour outside of London, because work must always be a route out of poverty; and four, provide free school meals for all, and through the holidays for anyone who applies. Universalism breaks down stigma, is cheaper to administer, and fosters social cohesion.

The End Child Poverty campaign has a more detailed list of policy demands. I support them all. 

“These children matter,” Rashford said. “These children are the future of this country. They are not just another statistic. And for as long as they don’t have a voice, they will have mine. You have my word on that.”

And mine, too. I’m not sure what a politician’s education is, but I was 48 before I became one. I hope by the time he’s my age, Marcus Rashford is a politician too.

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