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The cost of child poverty

10 min read

The government must repair the social safety net for the sake of the UK’s 4.1 million children growing up in poverty

Jack Monroe knows first-hand the terrible toll of being poor. Here, the cook and campaigner shares their story of living on the breadline with a young son

Food poverty can be difficult to fully comprehend as an abstract or theoretical thing. The statistics breed like feral rabbits across the middle pages of the newspapers every now and again, a pursed nod to the now-obligatory ‘community food collection’ baskets at the end of the supermarket checkouts.

I first spoke in Parliament of my own experiences of poverty in modern Britain eight years ago, first to Iain Duncan Smith, and then to Frank Field and Baroness Jenkin. I have spoken about it many times since. Yet all that seems to have changed in that time is the collective ennui, the feelgood dissonance of flinging a tin of cheap tomatoes into the hands of the volunteers in the supermarket foyer.

There is a huge disconnect between the Christian charity, the ribbon-cutting local press opportunities at the next pop-up emergency food aid service flailing out of a battered old community hall, and the underpinning reasons why millions of people have come to rely on the macro-philanthropy of their neighbours and strangers in order to just about struggle from one week to the next.

Poverty is so often framed as a kind of moral failing on the part of the sufferer. A distancing tecnique, pushing the blame back on to the dispossessed and downtrodden is, after all, far easier than a period of self-reflection and honest appraisal may be. Far more comforting for some to believe that I, in my 2012 iteration as a single mother on benefits, tattooed, gay, and unemployed, was feckless, workshy, grabby and irresponsible, rather than unlucky.

Nine years on, I have pulled myself up by my metaphorical bootstraps. A self-employed business woman, photographer, author, recipe developer and consultant, writer, columnist and presenter, I juggle as many hats as I need to keep the bailiffs from the door. But I’m quite literally one in a million.

Of the approximately 4.1 million children currently living in poverty in the UK, not many of them will end up sitting in the green rooms of television studios giggling with Sir Mo Farah while their parent tackles the rise in food bank use on a bright red breakfast sofa.

It’s a life of two halves, presenting awards at the Groucho Club on a Saturday night, and volunteering at the local food bank that I quite literally owe my life to on a Sunday morning. One foot in the revolving door of Portcullis House, in endless beseeching meetings with various earnest Members of the Opposition, and one foot in the cold shadow of trauma, and the itchy scars of self-neglect.

I have told my story hundreds of times now; but it isn’t unique and it isn’t just mine. I put my best coat on to go to the food bank. Nobody knew. Nobody asked. I was missing days of meals, the boiler off for two consecutive winters and every day and night in between. I unscrewed the lightbulbs, unplugged the empty fridge, sold my son’s shoes and drank his formula milk that the food bank gave me because there was nothing else.

This was no cosy frugality, but a minute-by-minute clawing at the periphery of survival. I’d challenge anyone to walk everywhere, in your only pair of flappy broken boots, with a soaking wet and sobbing three-year-old trailing behind you. Drag that three-year-old into every pub and shop in unreasonable walking distance and ask if they have any job vacancies.

Get home, soaking wet, still unemployed, humiliated and bereft, to not quite dry out in a freezing cold flat that you’ve been served a Section 21 notice on, and keep the curtains drawn to hide from the burly men who bang on the door demanding that you pay them money you don’t have as you clutch your toddler to your chest and sob into his hair.

You’re used to the slightly musty, dank aroma that clings to your fibres these days, the faint but unmistakable stench of destitution that silently advertises your personal paucity in a clammy cloud of shame.

You’re cold, exhausted, only forcing yourself out of the depths of choking depression to smile at the children’s centre workers because you’re scared they can see how numb and dead you feel. Intrusive, noisy thoughts repeat that your son would have a better life without you. You’re a drain on society, the state, your family and friends.

You find yourself in your best coat at the food bank, falling apart in a room full of people, you hear your voice, disembodied, shouting at your son to just be quiet as his voice joins the chorus of noise buzzing around you.

Someone takes you into another room and gives you sugary tea.

You know they know you aren’t coping.

You’re trying desperately to compose yourself because you’re terrified that ‘intervention’ means someone might take your child away.

Poverty isn’t a discerning foe. The rain isn’t miraculously any less wet when you don’t have a coat with a hood, or an umbrella, or three quid for the bus, just because Mummy and Daddy are still married, or you went to a grammar school. That rain still soaks you to the skin, and that of your three-year-old, too.

The three-year-old is almost 11 now, and has no conscious recall of what I call “the bad times”. But he’s inexplicably anxious. Weird about food. Constantly checks the fridge and the cupboard just to ”make sure”. Watches me like a hawk, insisting we eat together. I can’t fathom that he remembers the times I sat opposite him, watching him eat his tiny dinner, praying he would leave a little bit of it for me to hoover up when he wasn’t looking.

Childhood exposure to poverty, deprivation and adversity falls under the umbrella of Adverse Childhood Experiences, along with domestic abuse, childhood sexual assault, loss of a parent, parental incarceration, violence and neglect.

Exposure to ACEs increases the risk of trauma later in life – with less favourable health outcomes, a negative impact on general wellbeing, increased likelihood of risky or criminal behaviours, poor educational and academic outcomes, and financial difficulties.

Children who experience food insecurity, even short term, are more likely to fall ill, have a slower recovery rate than average from minor illnesses, and are more likely to need hospital admission. Food poverty does not exist in a vacuum, and as one of the fundamental survival instincts of our species, food is one of the last necessities that we choose to cut in a crisis.

A lack of adequate, balanced, healthy food impacts concentration and academic performance; the hungry child disrupts not only his or her own education, but also their peers’. Hundreds of teachers have written to tell me of the snacks they keep in their desk drawer, the lunch boxes they subtly hand out to pupils who have arrived at school empty handed, the silent settling of school lunch debts, the year-round ‘help yourself harvest festival’ of pasta and beans and cans of soup in a tucked-away classroom.

Food insecurity at any age is linked to a higher probability of chronic illness; I am a case in point. In 2011, I was preparing to transfer from the Fire Control Room to the fireground. I could bench press my own body weight. I ran half marathons. Went to the gym at 6am before work, and after dinner for good measure. Did the bleep test on my lunch break for fun. Kept a dumbbell under my desk to casually work out with in quiet periods, and did the ironing sitting on a massive yoga ball.

Three years and nine addresses later, I was in hospital with a suspected heart attack. Chronic sinusitis and a recurrence of my childhood asthma followed – not helped by the draughty, damp, flats that my paltry housing benefit stretched to. My arthritis made itself known at the tender age of 25. I’m on anti-anxiety medication, beta blockers, antidepressants, steroids for the arthritis, and sleeping pills.

I don’t run any more. I’d fail the fire service assessments these days, a liability with my walking stick and inability to pick myself off the floor if I crouch down in the supermarket to get the cheap tomatoes from the bottom shelf. I’m haunted by my former Watch Officers parting shot – that I’d be fine, I’ve always worked, I’ll find a new job easy. It wasn’t easy; 341 ghosted job applications later, I was no longer proud to have served in Essex County Fire And Rescue Service, but merely resentful at how long it was to type out into every single job vacancy form.

A person’s value in our society shouldn’t be based on whether or not they have worked all their life, or never been able to, or somewhere in between. We all pay our taxes, after all. Not just on wages, but with every packet of biscuits, every bottle of wine, every bag of crisps, every can of pet food, and until recently, every packet of sanitary products. I was raised to believe that taxes should be treated as a huge insurance syndicate: we all put a little bit in, and when we need to make a claim, it’s measured against the scale of need, rather than the history of contributions.

If we take any lesson from the last year, with the collapse of so many high-end restaurants; the lack of support for those working in the arts; the three million self-employed who don’t qualify for any form of financial support from the Chancellor’s much-trumpeted “nobody will be left behind” scheme; let it be that not many of us are truly immune from the possibility of one day having to draw from that communal insurance pot that our taxes should afford us.

Over the last decade, those of us who have dared to look have witnessed the decimation of the baseline of services that many aren’t even aware exist – until they need them and find there’s nothing there. Cuts to mental health services, social care, domestic violence refuges.

Swingeing cuts and changes to benefits, universal credit rollout disasters, delays in benefit payments, and other forms of care support slashed. When the coronavirus shadow starts to finally wane, we will all be left standing in the ruins of a freshly damned economy, and there will be thousands of people who will not and cannot survive another round of austerity cuts.

Choosing to deny the most fundamental of human needs for the sake of a few quid scraped off the bottom line today will end up costing far more tomorrow. If our leaders can’t bring themselves to repair the social safety net for the sake of common humanity, they should patch it up for the sake of economic recovery in a decade or two instead.

The 4.1 million people living with the ticking time bomb of increased risks of toxic stress, PTSD, cognitive difficulties, depression, gum disease, chronic fatigue, osteoporosis, asthma, COPD, arterial disease, mental distress, diabetes, hepatitis, hypertension, suicidal ideation, and inflammation, will end up collectively costing us a whole lot more down the line.

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