Opinion with Cllr Karen Constantine: Daily struggle of food security

Cllr Karen Constantine

Are we levelling up or levelling down?

Child poverty, hunger and food insecurity have dominated the news in recent days. It seems that just about everyone has an opinion (some opinions are more judgmental than others).

Nelson Mandela famously said: “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” That’s ringing especially true for me as I’m hearing from parents who are struggling to feed their children all the time.

Do you remember back in the summer? We were worried that the Government would not continue the free school voucher scheme then.

I wrote to local MP Craig Mackinlay in June and asked him the following question:

“Do you realise how important this (scheme) is to very many of your residents in South Thanet? Food security is a real and daily struggle.”

Sadly, I didn’t receive a response.

In Ramsgate the rise in food insecurity is unprecedented, exacerbated by the unchecked rise in child poverty. Thanet shockingly has 37% of 16-year-olds and under living in poverty, in some wards the rate is even higher and this is continuing to grow.

We have the highest rates of child poverty in Kent, in fact, we are among the poorest communities in England. The percentage of people claiming out of work benefits is now at the highest level in more than 20 years, the number of unemployment claimants in Thanet has soared by 56.5%. Almost one in ten of our workers is now out of work, again the highest rate in Kent. Youth unemployment is the highest in the South East at 13.6%.

These rates are continuing to grow. Of course, the pandemic is playing a role as more and more people are losing their jobs, reducing hours and take home pay, and the self-employed are failing to secure the contracts they need to survive. The situation is likely to become worse as the furlough scheme finishes at the end of October. Indications are that unemployment will reach levels not seen since the 1980s.

Thanet has long been a ‘left behind’ community. Under the Conservatives child poverty has almost doubled due to the austerity measures the Government has chosen to impose. Child poverty rises as household income declines. In Thanet Universal Credit and high housing costs have seen a decrease in household income, stoking child poverty.

Craig Mackinlay states “we all like things for free“. He forgets, the Government’s money is actually our money, we earn it, through our labour. If we want to be the kind of society that ensures no child goes hungry, that’s our call.

Marcus Rashford is rightly a household name through his heartfelt campaign to kick food poverty for children into touch. Other charities such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and the Buttle Trust also speak ‘power to truth’, exhorting the Government to properly support our youngsters.

The UK is the sixth richest country on the planet. It’s unbelievable and unbearable that we have children who are growing up hungry. What does that do to them? Bodies and brains need fuel. Children who go to bed hungry find that they cannot sleep. The ‘brain’ is hardwired for survival and won’t allow rest if starvation is a possibility. What damage are we sowing for the future? How do young people concentrate at school when they are hungry?

With 4 million children now living in poverty and teachers reporting that kids are noticeably thinner when they return to school after the school holidays, we need a Government and MPs who act on compassion and common sense. We don’t want a return to the politics of the workhouse!

When I was a single parent bringing up two hungry boys I used to joke about the vast quantities of food that they ate, especially as teenagers. I joked about bulk buying pies to fill them!  I was working full time and I earned enough not to worry too much. Although I wasn’t particularly well-paid, my average earnings could provide for us. There was no extravagance, but there was also no ‘hunger’.

Now far too many jobs are low-paid, and minimum wage rates that should have been a floor have become a ceiling of maximum wages. Benefits rates are low, even will the additional £1000 per year, or £20 per week to help with Covid, it is an effort to make ends meet, even for those with advanced budgeting skills. Anyone on benefits long term knows it simply gets more difficult to manage.

If the Conservatives continue to build a perfect storm of poverty, child hunger, cuts to services, low wages and growing unemployment, then there is no doubt in my mind that they will forfeit their right to govern and Labour will be elected and left to pick up the mess. We will again reverse child poverty and seek to end it completely.

We are being told that there isn’t enough money to go around. That there must be ‘belt-tightening’. We didn’t hear this when the Chancellor Rishi Sunak found £522m for the ‘eat out to help out’ scheme which put profits into many companies. Nor when the Government spent £12b on the abject failure that is the test and trace programme but suddenly when we point out that our children need to be fed properly, we are accused of asking for ‘something for nothing’.

Such callous hypocrisy.

Yesterday I heard of a food parcel being delivered to a mum with two children who literally had nothing in her purse and two tins of beans in the cupboard. She struggles to pay all her bills and always ensures her children have food. She lives on what’s left i.e very little.

She doesn’t want ‘things for free’, she wants dignity. As do many of the parents I have spoken with.

To end on another thought provoking quote, “The reasons for child poverty are complex. Feeding hungry children isn’t”. Jeff Bridges.