Food for thought: battling the effects of child poverty during a funding crisis
As poverty levels continue to rise, some of the people helping children in need are having their funding cut
"Because of the lifestyles the children lead, they are really, really hungry on a Monday morning. You can see the difference in the amount of food they eat when they come in on a Monday.”
Susan Heron, project manager at the Venchie Children and Young People’s Project in Craigmillar, one of Edinburgh’s most deprived communities, pauses briefly as one of her staff members comes around offering slices of chicken to the children who are finishing off their toast, cereal and yoghurts.
“We have a community larder and put lots of excess food out, as well as nappies and period products and anybody that’s in need can take them,” she says. “We also have to give some children snacks to take to school because they don’t have anything with them.”
The children Heron is talking about all attend the Venchie’s breakfast club, a referred service for those youngsters most in need in Craigmillar, which is among the most deprived 20 per cent of areas in Scotland.
The children are collected from their homes in the morning, taken to the Venchie’s base on Niddrie Mains Terrace, where they eat breakfast, brush their teeth and play before being walked along to school by staff members.
“Some of the children don’t have a toothbrush at home,” Heron tells Holyrood as the primary pupils sit dutifully brushing their teeth while watching the two-minute timer count down until they can stop.
While not having something as basic as a toothbrush at home seems shocking, the reality is that for a growing number of children across the country, this is the norm, and the challenges faced by children and families in Craigmillar are not unique to the area.
There were an estimated 14.3 million people living in poverty in the UK in 2017-18, with children accounting for 4.5 million of them.
And according to an academic study published last year, more than half of the most long-term deprived areas in the UK are in Scotland, where around one in four children lives in poverty.
This has led to the use of food banks in Scotland hitting a record high. Figures provided by the Trussell Trust, which supports a nationwide network of food banks, show 210,605 food parcels were issued to people in need in 2018-19. Around one in three – or 69,410 – was for a child.
The primary cause for food bank referral during that time was income not covering the cost of essentials, followed by benefit delays and benefit changes.
Analysis by the Resolution Foundation think tank last month revealed that child poverty is at risk of rising to a record 60-year high under a Conservative government because its manifesto retains the coalition’s benefit cuts. It predicted a rise in the number of children living in relative poverty under a Boris Johnson-led government to 34.5 per cent in 2023-24, up from 29.6 per cent in 2017-18 and said the rise in relative poverty expected under a Conservative government was largely because of the impact of the two-child limit on support for families, which is mostly still to take effect.
John Dickie, Director of Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland, agrees with the findings.
“There’s no question about it, all the analysis points to the cuts to UK social security which really had an eye-watering impact on the incomes of our lowest income families,” he says. “Whether it’s IFS or IPPR or Resolution Foundation, or the Scottish Government’s own commissioned analysis, they all point to the UK social security cuts and the erosion of the value of financial support for families.
“The biggest single cut has been the policy decision not to uprate benefits in line with inflation. That’s eroded the value of family benefits, of tax credits, of the new universal credits, and the financial support that those benefits provided to families. These benefits provide a real anchor for low-income families and the erosion of the value of that support is the key driver to the already increasing levels of child poverty that we’ve seen.”
The Scottish Government has set out a series of targets to try to reduce child poverty through the Child Poverty (Scotland) Act.
The targets state that by 2030, less than ten per cent of children should be living in relative poverty, less than five per cent should be living in absolute poverty, less than five per cent should be living with combined low income and material deprivation and less than five per cent should be living in persistent poverty.
However, the Scottish Government is predicted to fall well short of its interim target for reducing child poverty to 18 per cent by 2023-24, according to the annual Poverty in Scotland report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF).
It estimates that 26 per cent of children in Scotland will be living in poverty in 2023-24, with poverty set to rise rather than go down in the next few years.
Dickie says that the Scottish Government’s commitments – while welcomed – need to go even further if Scotland has any chance of meeting the 2030 targets.
He points to the Scottish Child Payment – the £10-per-week payments for every child up to the age of six from a low-income family – as an example.
“Clearly what’s in place so far isn’t enough but what’s been put in place is hugely welcome,” says Dickie. “So, the fact that we do have statutory targets towards the eradication of child poverty, we have those 2030 targets in law, that there is a duty on government to produce delivery plans and to report annually on those, that there are duties on local authorities and health boards to produce local child poverty action reports, is all really welcome, as is the overall approach described in the national delivery plan on child poverty."
“The government is absolutely right: this is about increasing incomes through social security and through work, reducing the costs whether that’s housing, energy, childcare, transport costs, this is what needs to be done, and there are some very real actions being put in place.
“The most substantive of those is the commitment to the Scottish Child Payment, the £10-a-week payments for children in low-income families. These are hugely welcome, but as they stand, don’t yet add up to the scale of change that’s needed if we’re serious about reaching those 2030 targets.
“The Scottish Child Payment in itself, £10 a week for each child, is a significant addition to families on the lowest incomes. It can make a real difference when it comes to putting food on the table, being able to pay the bills that week, being able to put money aside for an outing or school trip. At a national level, it suggests it will lift up to 30,000 children out of poverty, so that’s a real substantive impact, but to reach the targets, we need to lift 140,000 children out of poverty and to do it at the same time as the UK policy is actually driving up levels of child poverty.
“So, even just to stand still, the Scottish Child Payment would need to be double the value just to keep us where we are. But clearly, it’s not all about social security. There’s also work needs to be done not just to ensure that support’s there for parents to move into work and increase their earnings, but we actually [need to] start fundamentally changing and using all the levers that government has at its disposal, at each and every level, to influence the kind of jobs that are being created, the kind of economy that we have so that jobs pay decent wages, they provide real progression for parents, they provide the ability to balance childcare and responsibilities with work, they provide a security with employment that is too often lacking at the moment.”
In Craigmillar, the Venchie project supports the type of parents Dickie is talking about.
Like most communities where people are living in poverty, there are issues with drug and alcohol addiction, as well as a range of health inequalities, and the Venchie steps in to help the children who are living in “chaos”.
The 23 children who attend the breakfast club have all been referred to the service by their school or other agency because without the staff at Venchie taking them to school every day, they simply wouldn’t attend.
“There can be lots of different reasons they are not getting to school,” Heron explains. “Their parents might have mental health problems, drug and alcohol dependencies, chaos in the house, bereavements, parents with relationship breakdowns. It’s crisis situations.
“There’s a huge issue with children who are always late for school. They do numeracy and literacy in the mornings so if they go in late, they miss the vitals.”
Heron, who was born and brought up in Craigmillar, and has worked in the community for 44 years, says the attempt to regenerate Craigmillar in recent years has done little to help those struggling families already living there."
“There’s very little changed. The area has creeped a wee bit out of the deprivation bracket and that’s the mistake,” she says. “There are houses that are mid-market rent and houses that are privately owned in the area. That changes the affluency of the area but most of the ownership houses are then rented by the people that have always lived here, so the people and their needs haven’t really changed. If anything, it’s got worse because through regeneration we have lost everything. This area used to have eight primary schools and a high school. It used to have lots of organisations for the benefit of the community to make it a thriving place, groups that were set up to help people.”
And now even the Venchie itself faces an uncertain future after Edinburgh City Council halted its funding, focusing on universal school breakfast clubs instead.
“So, even just to stand still, the Scottish Child Payment would need to be double the value just to keep us where we are.
Heron says if the Venchie’s breakfast club wasn’t able to continue, it would have a devastating impact on the children who currently attend, and says cuts to similar schemes in other deprived communities have confirmed her fears.
“What they are trying to say to me is that the children here will automatically slot into the universal breakfast club – but the children have to get to it themselves. The school breakfast club is not like-for-like. There’s five staff for 80 children, there’s no one-to-one, no personalisation. We are very well-placed to see what’s going on in the family because we are at the door every morning. We are in a very privileged position because they don’t see us as social work. They trust us and they confide in us.”
Edinburgh City Council said that it gave the Venchie project funding for an additional two years after its grant application was unsuccessful to allow it time to secure other sources of funding.
“Breakfast clubs are delivered in our primary schools as a universal offer as we believe they should be available for all children,” a council spokesman said. “This removes stigma, and in conjunction with other strategies in school, is providing high quality support for all children who require it.
“No child is left unsupported as the schools understand the children’s needs and are aware of the support they require to ensure all families’ needs are met.”
In the meantime, as the funding crisis rumbles on, and in the dawn of a new Conservative government, the Venchie's mini-bus will continue to head out at 7am every weekday morning, picking up Craigmillar’s most vulnerable children so they can be fed and delivered safely to school.
A normal part of everyday life for most families; an essential need for others.