Chi Onwurah grew up in poverty and knows how going to bed hungry can impact a young person’s future.
Now, the Newcastle Central MP spends almost every day dealing with constituents desperate for help.
“I see parents coming to my constituency in tears because they can’t afford to feed their children, or because they have to go to a food bank and they can’t afford the bus fare,” she says.
Friday November 20 marks World Children’s Day, but in the UK 4.2 million children are currently living in poverty. The pandemic looks likely to make the situation worse, as many parents find themselves out of work and at risk of losing their job or becoming homeless.
Onwurah was born in Wallsend, just outside her Newcastle constituency. The north east has been hit hardest by the second wave of the pandemic and the region suffered the country’s biggest increase in child poverty between 2015 and 2019, according to the North East Child Poverty Commission. Half of all children in Onwurah’s seat of Newcastle Central grow up poor. Onwurah takes this personally.
“I grew up in poverty and on benefits. We were a one parent family, and my mum was disabled so she didn’t work. We grew up on benefits in a council house,” she says.
As a child in poverty, she adds, it’s hard to imagine the world beyond what you see: “If all you see is poverty and a lack of options then that limits your horizon.”
#Childpoverty is evil. I know, I grew up with it. I asked the PM why he was planning to take £1000 a year from the poorest households in #NewcastleCentral, when @nechildpoverty report that half our children are growing up poor as it is. I didn’t get an answer #PMQs pic.twitter.com/oimhQzMcpu
— Chi Onwurah (@ChiOnwurah) November 18, 2020
Onwurah had a strong academic interest, got a grant to go to university and became a chartered engineer. She describes this as the second-best job in the world, beaten only by being an MP.
But she worries children growing up in poverty today don’t have access to the same opportunities due to ten years of austerity and cuts to the welfare system.
“Benefits are barely enough to live on and you’re required to spend 35 hours a week searching for work when there often isn’t work,” she adds.
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The government temporarily increased the rate of Universal Credit by £20 in response to the crisis, but this ends in spring and could leave many struggling to cover their costs.
This week during Prime Minister’s Questions, Onwurah quizzed the PM on why this wouldn’t be extended. She says she didn’t get a direct response to her question.
Onwurah added: “The impact of the pandemic is not going to be over by April, and we know that it’s driven more people into poverty, we know it’s hugely driven up the use of food banks.
“My message to the government is this: every child needs a future, and the most important thing that the government can do is secure the future of our nation’s children.
“Poverty is an evil that cuts off children from the future that they deserve.”
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