Children are going hungry, have no clean clothes, no room to play and are being evicted from their homes on an increasingly regular basis according to a recent report by the charity Buttle UK. The report is significant in that it shows how much worse life is during the summer holidays for children who live in conditions of poverty, raising serious questions about the support available to struggling families outside of term time.
Buttle UK report that there are currently 3.9 million families living below the breadline in the UK; yet two out of three of these families have at least one parent in work. Clearly we are seeing the effects of austerity policies, with cuts to benefits alongside the impact of precarious work, zero hour contracts and low pay. As a result, according to the report, families are struggling to provide clothes, food, and shelter for their children.
As if the above statistics are not shocking enough, the report also states that in the last five years there has been a 60% increase in families being evicted from privately rented properties. That families can be evicted and made homeless anywhere in the 21st century - never mind in one of the richest countries in the world, with plenty of empty homes idling away - is absurd.
The impact of homelessness on children’s development is irreversible under this system and will add to the continuing increase in the gap between the rich and the poor. Clearly the effect of the housing crisis on struggling families with children demonstrates a compounding of misery. Greedy landlords are extracting every last penny in rent from already desperate families, 44% of whom lack beds and space for their children to play. The housing that families have is already inadequate to their needs. Yet despite this, eviction is becoming increasingly common according to Buttle UK’s report.
The significance of the lack of space for children to play is huge and will have a detrimental effect on their development. Buttle UK reported that almost none of the children surveyed for their report had other children to play with. Studies have made strong links between a lack of play and much higher chances of children developing rickets, obesity and ADHD (attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder).
Play has long been acknowledged by educational theorists as one of the most important aspect of cognitive development for children, therefore a lack of play will have serious effects on the child’s future as well as its life chances as an adult.
In addition, without play, children do not develop socially, meaning that it is not only the individual child who will suffer as a consequence of no play, but whole communities living in poverty. The effects of poverty on the family and children’s development span far wider than discomfort and misery, they are lifelong effects that are completely avoidable.
A lack of play then, results in lonely and unstimulated children during the summer holidays. But this is not the worst of the woes faced by children when school is out. Contrary to the assumption that winters are the hardest for families living in poverty - with the increased need for heating leading to many having to choose between heating or eating in the colder months - the Buttle UK report found that the summer holidays are the hardest, when parents facing the double whammy of losing the support of free school meals and having to take fewer shifts at work in order to take care of their children.
This clearly highlights the urgent need for affordable or free activities for children on the summer holidays so that parents can continue to work and maintain their income whilst children have access to the right to play.
The report’s findings make it clear that more drastic and urgent measures need to be taken. Whilst not raised by the report, we can see this through the damning fact that foodbanks have been running out of food, with families having to rely on them to a greater extent when they are without access to free school meals during the school holidays. These families need urgent action or they will literally starve. The fact that some families have to rely on food banks in one of the richest countries in the world points out clearly the fact that the capitalist economic system does not work.
We of course need urgent action in order to alleviate the suffering of the 3.9 million families living below the poverty line. But what should such action look like?
We need increased spending on welfare and public services; for bosses to pay fair wages; for landlords to charge genuinely affordable rents, and a mass programme of council house building; for childcare and fun activities for children to be readily available and affordable.
How can we get these things though? Reports like that from Buttle UK are not one offs, and the government is well aware of the plight of families in poverty - so why doesn’t it act?
The Tory government ultimately acts to defend the very capitalist system that has created these dire conditions. Without planning and democratic control over businesses and landlords, effective regulations cannot be placed on them that will be rightfully enforced.
With the crisis-ridden system demanding austerity, the Tory government will not fund free childcare and meals during the holidays. Instead, state spending and welfare are slashed. The money for these things clearly exists within society, but it is locked away in the bank accounts of the rich.
Should it now be the case that having children becomes a privilege of the rich who can afford not to work; who have the luxury of owning a home; of being able to earn enough in work to provide for themselves and their children?
All of these caveats are scandalous enough and should not be a problem for the 6th richest country in the world. People should be paid adequately in work and have the right to secure employment, housing, food, heating and clothing. But as the Buttle UK report highlights, more and more families do not have these rights. It is a horrendous contradiction of capitalism which means that those in work cannot afford to feed themselves, whilst others - who barely work at all - “earn” billions of pounds a year.
If the government will not and cannot give people basic rights then we must fight to change the political and economic system to one that will provide for us. We must expropriate the wealth of the rich elite, big businesses and parasitic landlords and use it to ensure that everyone has a stable job, a decent home and enough food.
Ultimately, however, we cannot control the wealth in society and use it to benefit the majority if we do not own it. Only when we collectively own the wealth that a handful of individuals currently suck out of our economy can we properly - and on a long term basis - fund childcare and activities for children; build homes for families that they will never be evicted from; and ensure that the summer holidays are not a nightmare for families but a time to enjoy.