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Opinion

Poverty is being normalised. We can’t keep depending on good people to fix it. The government must act

Four million children are living in poverty. It isn’t enough for ministers to say: “We’re doing something but we can’t help everybody”, writes Big Issue editor Paul McNamee.

There is a simple and brilliant ad currently playing out in cinemas. I saw it last week and it has stayed with me longer than the movie. I went to see the new Downton Abbey film. I love Downton – all the shimmering otherworldliness and Lady Mary’s iciness. But the ad – for Variety, the Children’s Charity – remains the thing. Rubbing up against Downton gave it a particular friction.

In the ad, we see a load of happy kids, maybe early teens, during a day out at the seaside. They are clearly not from wealthy backgrounds. There’s nothing showy, no glorious weather.

“It’s one of those visits”, the voiceover says, “when your fingers tingle with the cold” – it’s all big coats and milkshakes and imperfect burgers and arcades. The message is clear. There are kids in Britain with little. Give them something positive. There is a text panel at the end that reads, “In the UK there are 1.3 million disabled children and young people – four million children are living in poverty.” It finishes with the sign-off, “Every child deserves a fair chance in life. Let’s create a brighter future.”

On TV, there’s an ad for HSBC highlighting a circular trap people who are homeless can face – without a home and address there is no chance of a bank account, and so no access to jobs or payments and the rest of things we, within the accepted norms of society, take for granted. The ad says HSBC are working with some charities to address this. 

On social media, there is a photo doing the rounds of a local mayor smiling as he cuts the ribbon on a foodbank.

Opening foodbanks is now a cause of civic pride. Charities and third sector organisations have always played a big role in British society. They have represented that nexus of generous hearts and a need not served by those in power, at whatever level. This goes for everything from local sporting clubs to people offering days out for those in need.

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The Big Issue, for over 30 years, has been both a place of opportunity for those without chances elsewhere, and, certainly during the pandemic, a provider of handouts to those lost between the cracks. We’ve also worked to end the cycle that people who are homeless, as mentioned earlier, can find themselves in. But something else is happening now, leading charity films to be about repairing major societal fissures, not just doing a bit of fundraising.

In 2010, there were about 40,000 users of foodbanks across the UK. I remember reporting on that and thinking it was a big number, and indicative of a problem that needed to be fixed.

The Trussell Trust said that in the year to April 2022 they handed out 2.1 MILLION food parcels. More than 830,000 of these were for children. They identify an “accelerating crisis”. Families are now pawning possessions in order to meet rent and food costs. The money secured is usually less than £100.

The gap between what is needed to stem the crisis and what central government is missing can no longer be filled by good people doing what they can. We can’t carry on expecting, for instance, Premier League footballers to step up and force the government’s hand on school meals. We shouldn’t have to rely on Jack Monroe, great though she is, to carry the weight of responsibility for equitable food costs.

The government has to stand up. We’re past the point of rule by rhetoric, where boosterism about levelling up exists instead of clear policy plans. It isn’t enough to say we’re doing something but we can’t help everybody. Four million children are currently living in poverty. That number is not going to miraculously shrink.

The opposition have said a few things about the need for some windfall taxes to plug some gaps, but that is tilting at windmills. This is the time to go big and bold. Standing tall in the culture wars is fine. But it isn’t going to feed or heat or clothe.  The government send outriders to dismiss the need for an emergency budget and the need for a new grand plan. Once you strip the rhetoric away, show me another way. A plan is needed now.

Paul McNamee is editor of The Big IssueRead more of his columns here.

@PauldMcNamee

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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