Helen Mary Jones MS, Plaid Cymru Shadow Minister for Tackling Poverty
Whilst causing a global pandemic, freezing the world’s biggest economies, and sending most of Europe into lockdown, the coronavirus crisis has also exposed how we have let down the weakest elements of our society.
Years of warnings about an underfunded and vulnerable NHS have been realised, and shortfalls in our education system have the potential to have long-lasting effects on children’s prospects. The coronavirus crisis has hit the poorest in our society the hardest.
As the UK passes its peak and lockdown measures begin to lift, we must ensure that we do not ‘go back to normal’, because normal was not good enough. In order to build back better, we must prioritise tackling the shortfalls in our society, one of them being child poverty.
The most recent data on poverty in Wales reveals that almost one in three, or approximately 180,000 children, live in poverty.
Research from Turn2Us reveals that families with children are much more likely to have lost income as a result of Covid 19, with 71% of children living in families where at least one parent has had their employment affected. These figures indicate that child poverty is bound to rise even further and much faster if substantial intervention isn’t carried out.
Those still in work face difficulties in securing childcare, as those who ordinarily depend on schools or grandparents are left with no choice but to reduce hours, be furloughed, or take unpaid leave (and risk their jobs in the process) in order to look after their children.
Childcare after lockdown life might also be an issue, as many settings in the sector face closure following a lack of a package of support from the Welsh Government.
Other obstacles families are facing as a result of lockdown is a rise in living costs, such as bills, as significantly more time is spent in the home.
Rising costs combined with a decline in salaries will make for an even greater number of households unable to afford necessities, including healthy meals for their children. Many of the factors that ordinarily contribute to holiday hunger are present during this extended period, which has a number of negative impacts on these children.
There is a wealth of evidence that highlights a link between food insecurity and school attainment, as children’s wellbeing and capacity to carry out educational tasks is hindered by a lack of nutritious food.
Other factors including a lack of digital access, space, and parental confidence and own experiences of education impact children’s ability to learn at home. Research by the Sutton Trust reveals that whilst 27% of teachers in the most advantaged state schools report they’ve received back more than three-quarters of work set for their pupils during remote learning, only 8% of teachers report same in the least advantaged schools.
Disadvantaged children will also become subject to greater risks than their peers, including those presented by the crisis. Those living in poorer areas are more likely to have health conditions that put them at higher risk of complications of coronavirus, putting the communities and families of children in poverty at higher risk. In fact, the ONS noted that coronavirus mortality rates in the most deprived areas of Wales are almost twice as high as those in the least deprived areas.
Reductions in income also lessen opportunities for escaping abusive home environments, as well as increasing the likelihood of domestic abuse in households in the first place. This means that children whose families face financial hardship due to the coronavirus are more at risk of being in a household in which domestic abuse is prevalent.
The absence of teachers’ intervention is also a risk in terms of safety in the home. There has been a dramatic drop in child protection referrals during this period, highlighting the role that schools and other professionals play in identifying children at risk.
We must ensure that the extent of child poverty in Wales isn’t worsened the coronavirus crisis, but rather that it is seen as a golden opportunity to make bold changes to our society and the level of support our most vulnerable receive.
Changes in the UK wide social security system should also be demanded by the Welsh Government.
The Joseph Roundtree Foundation has recently called on the UK Government to increase the child element of Universal and Tax Credits by £20 per week.
Going forward, concerns that have been raised by this crisis, including children’s hunger outside of school and the two child-limit to universal credit should be addressed on an ongoing basis.
These issues should spur us on to take bold action to tackle these societal inequalities. The Children’s Commissioner for Wales has described how the upheavals of two World Wars were previously precursors to major social, education and welfare reforms in the UK.
Plaid Cymru has long called for the introduction of a Welsh child payment of £35 a week for all children in low-income families, which could lift 50,000 children out of poverty.
We should use this crisis as an opportunity to make further historic changes to rectify the multitude of inequalities we have observed.
If we don’t, we risk a whole generation of Welsh children in low-income families being left behind.