Most believe England is a wealthy country with high living standards. After all, the UK is a G7 nation, London is a leading international financial centre and the UK is the fifth-largest economy in the world. But despite the country’s wealth and dominance in global finance, standards of living for the average family are falling and a fifth of the population now live in poverty.
This disconnect between perceptions and realities is further influenced by history and popular culture – Cambridge University, Big Ben, Downton Abbey, Sherlock Holmes and James Bond showcase images of a country that’s home to courteous, well-dressed ladies and gentlemen, and where poverty affects only a minority of unfortunate families. Sadly, poverty in the UK is reaching shocking heights and the reality of modern life is very different from what many visitors expect.
According to a recent report by the Social Metrics Commission (SMC) there are as many as 4.5 million children currently living in poverty – a figure that accounts for 33 percent of the country’s children. In the average class of 30 students, nine will be living in poverty.
The areas with the highest levels of child poverty are London, Yorkshire, the Northeast and Northwest. In these regions, over 20 percent of families are living below the breadline. The Southeast of England is the region with the lowest levels of poverty, but even in this area, 16.6 percent of families are poor.
As a result of the growth in child poverty, an alarming number of children are now homeless. According to the homelessness charity Shelter, as many as 130,000 children in the UK are living in temporary accommodation – that’s the equivalent of five homeless children in every school.
Another concern highlighted by the SMC’s report is that many of these poor children come from families in which at least one parent is working. The number of ‘working poor’ has now reached its highest level seen in recent decades.
— IOE Library (@IOELibrary) 29 January 2019
This situation, where hardworking parents are unable to provide the basics for their children, illustrates the failure of government policies to provide the necessary benefits and security to struggling families. Furthermore, it highlights the growing unfairness of the modern labour market. Successive governments have argued that employment is the only way for individuals to pull themselves out of poverty, and yet the country now has over eight million people who are employed but still grappling with poverty.
Another recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has also drawn attention to the alarming growth in poverty across the UK. According to the report, half a million more children are now suffering in poverty now than five years ago. Campbell Robb, the foundation’s Chief Executive, expressed his concern that the country is “seeing a rising tide of child poverty as more parents are unable to make ends meet”. He warned that families are being “pushed over the brink”.
The situation in the UK has become so dire that the United Nations dispatched the Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, to examine the impact of poverty on vulnerable families. Speaking at a press conference, Alston said that despite being one of the world’s richest countries, he had encountered considerable “misery” in the UK, claiming that the level of child poverty in the UK is “staggering”.
Unsurprisingly, the official report which followed the Special Rapporteur’s 12-day visit was damning. It claims that the prevalence of poverty among British children is a result of political choices made by government leaders, arguing that there is no reason why a wealthy nation should have such high levels of child poverty. The report also states that the country’s Ministers are in a “state of denial” about poverty.
Poverty is also having an adverse effect on the education of British children. According to a 2018 report by the National Education Union (NEU), 87 percent of respondents acknowledged that poverty is significantly impacting student learning, with one of the biggest problems being hunger.
Jane Jenkins, a Headteacher from Cardiff, Wales, revealed that children in her school often come with a lunch consisting of just a slice of bread, and teachers frequently provide children with additional food to ensure they have enough to eat. Many schools are now becoming lifelines for poor families, providing not only food but also clothing, essential toiletries and even cleaninng uniforms for poor students.
— UK House of Commons (@HouseofCommons) 29 January 2019
The pressures and uncertainties of growing up in poverty are having a detrimental impact on children’s mental health. The Mental Health Foundation reported that one in four students are worried about their family’s financial situation. The long-term mental health of these children is also at risk, and children living in the poorest households are twice as likely to develop mental health problems than their more affluent classmates.
Without urgent intervention, millions of British children face being caught in the poverty trap. As a result of an impoverished childhood, poor children’s education is suffering, making it extremely difficult for them to reach their full academic potential. Graduating from school with weak results will make it difficult for these children to move into higher education, or find employment that’s meaningful and financially-rewarding enough to raise them above a breadline existence.
Unfortunately, things are set to get worse before they better with the UK now on the verge of leaving the EU without a deal. As businesses move their headquarters to European cities, economists are predicting that the British economy will falter, and working families are expected to “bear the brunt” of these hardships. The prospect of a country in which everyone can prosper now seems more distant than ever.