Lifting children from poverty – what more can be done in Wales?
Steffan Evans, Policy and Research Officer at the Bevan Foundation
For the 180,000 children living in poverty in Wales, the last few months have been especially difficult. With thousands of people losing their jobs or seeing their incomes fall due to being put on furlough or a cut in their working hours, and living costs increasing, families with children have often had to face the brunt of the crisis.
Recent research undertaken by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Save the Children found that a staggering seven in 10 families with children who were claiming Universal Credit or Child Tax Credits have had to cut back on essentials such as food, utilities, nappies and activities for children (including books) as a result of the pandemic.
The Welsh Government have taken some welcome steps to support families through this period and to plug the gaps in the UK’s social security system. The Welsh Government’s decision to guarantee funding of Free School Meals throughout the summer holiday has been especially welcomed whilst the decision to provide extra cash for the Discretionary Assistance Fund has helped many.
But whilst the experiences of the last few months have served to highlight the importance of the support provided by the Welsh Government to low-income families, recent research by the Bevan Foundation as part of its broader project on the Welsh Benefits System, highlights that similar schemes could be significantly improved.
What’s not working?
Three schemes, in particular, provide support to low-income families with children in Wales; Free School Meals, Healthy Start Vouchers and the Pupil Development Grant – Access (assistance towards the cost of school uniform).
Whilst these provide assistance to tens of thousands of children in Wales, thousands more miss out on support because even though they have a poverty-level income they have a parent in work. This is a problem that is likely to have worsened as a result of Covid 19 and can have a devastating impact on families.
One mother who spoke with the Bevan Foundation in the course of its research said:
“It kills us, he (her partner) has his wage at the end of every month, by the time we’ve paid our rent and council tax that’s £500 gone and half of the time he’ll have like £700 pay £800 pay, lucky if he has that so obviously by the time I get packed lunch stuff, that costs me £20 a week if not more.”
Another mother added:
“School meals are averagely priced, but, when you’ve got three children of school age, you’re talking nearly £10 per day, so it’s kind of never been an option to be honest even to consider them having school meals. I think the Government just assume that you have this amount of money, you can just get by.”
The Bevan Foundation also found evidence that many families who are eligible for support are deterred from applying due to complex eligibility criteria or the stigma of living in poverty.
The support on offer is also not always enough, for example, the Free School Meals Allowance is sometimes not enough for a drink as well as food, whilst there is no support at all available with other expensive education-related costs such as the cost of school trips or extracurricular activities.
What can be done?
The Bevan Foundation believes that the quality of the support provided to families trapped in poverty in Wales could be significantly improved if the Welsh Government viewed all of the support it provides low-income families holistically as part of a broader Welsh Benefits System rather than as individual schemes.
Viewing all the schemes together would encourage greater strategic thinking about how families are supported and provide greater consistency in the way families get access to support.
When looking at the support that’s available for children living in poverty the Bevan Foundation has identified some steps that could be taken as part of this process and to improve the support that is currently available for families:
- All children living in families who are eligible for Universal Credit should be entitled to free school meals and for support towards the cost of their school uniform.
- Over school holidays families should receive a Free School Meals allowance to help with the cost of providing meals.
- The Welsh Government and local authorities should work together to automatically enrol children in families who are eligible for Free School Meals, Pupil Development Grant – Access and Healthy Start Vouchers.
- The Welsh Government, local authorities, teachers and governors should work together to end the stigma around poverty to ensure no child misses out on an opportunity, just because they are poor.
You can read the Bevan Foundation’s report in full on their website.