Children offer to buy food with pocket money as cost of living rises

Struggling families say their ‘mental health is on the ground’ as children struggle with feelings of shame and guilt over soaring living costs.

According to think tank The Resolution Foundation, around 1.3 million Britons will be pushed into absolute poverty by the cost of living squeeze – including half a million children.

It comes as the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) says households are facing the biggest squeeze in living standards since records began in the 1950s.

According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), two-thirds of adults in Britain said their cost of living had risen in the past month, with 79 per cent citing rising gas bills and electricity as a cause.

Further strains on household finances are expected from April 2022 with a planned increase in national insurance contributions.

Despite a 5p cut in fuel tax and an increase in the National Insurance threshold of £3,000, the average working family is set to lose £1.10 – a 4% drop in income over the next exercise, analysis of the Chancellor’s spring statement shown.

One in six children aged 5 to 16 are likely to have a mental health condition, up from one in nine in 2017, according to 2021 figures from NHS Digital.

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According to Action for Children, 47% of children surveyed from low-income backgrounds (under £20,000 a year) said they worried about their family’s finances, compared with 14% of children from high-income families (more £70,000 a year). ).

The Independent spoke to single mothers who are all participating in Covid Realities, a two-year research program launched in April 2020 to document the experiences of low-income households.

“My daughter was afraid that I would die”

Domestic abuse survivor Victoria, who did not wish to give her real name, said while things were tight ahead of the £20 Universal Credit hike, this year “the money just doesn’t stretch not”.

Raised on low incomes in the 1990s, the single mother knows firsthand the trauma that comes with child poverty.

Building healthy eating relationships and managing your budget effectively can be difficult when “your childhood was full of hunger, cold, or fear,” she said.

But now she gets “just over half the amount of food for the same budget” adding, “packages are smaller, prices are higher”.

She said: “This month’s store cost me about 35% more for 75% of the amount of food I usually get each month.”

Food and non-alcoholic beverage prices increased by 4.2% in the year to December 2021, and between January and November 2021, domestic gas prices increased by 28% while domestic prices electricity increased by 19%.

(AP)

As a result, Victoria often skips meals – sometimes for days – to ensure her children have enough food and to protect them from poverty-related mental health issues. But despite her efforts to shelter her children, they still worry about her.

“At breakfast, my eldest told me she was worried because she hadn’t seen me eat all weekend. She said she was afraid I would get sick or die.

“Children are not immune to these fears,” she added. “They are not ignorant.”

“They don’t care about us”

“I shiver now as I speak,” Jo Barker-Marsh said in a phone call in February as she revealed how she and her son constantly feel the cold in their home where “there is no not enough carpets, not enough heaters and a lot of drafts”. ”.

The 49-year-old former Greater Manchester film producer said her son, aged just 12, first ‘intellectualised’ their poverty earlier this year: ‘His face broke in a million pieces and he said ‘Our house is so cold. I’m so fed up. I’m so sick of being cold.”

It comes as energy bills are expected to rise by over 50% in April, but will be compounded by a further increase of over £800 in October, pushing the average energy bill towards £2,800.

Harry, who has special educational needs, told his mum ‘going outside is no different to being inside’ and unable to turn up the heating, Ms Barker-Marsh said her son recorded “how wrong it is that energy companies are making record profits at a time when we’re not even hot.”

Speaking about the impact this has had on his mental health, Ms Barker-Marsh said: ‘We are so dehumanized now and he is absolutely aware of that.

She added: ‘I don’t have mold on my walls or sleeping under a silver sheet so you feel compelled to fulfill your poverty, but it’s very exhausting for a child.

“He just wants something done. He thinks some people just want to be rich and they don’t care about us.

“Your children will suffer the most”

Left with no savings after her divorce, Angie – not her real name – said she was forced to rely on benefits, but by the time she finished paying all her bills and reimbursements, “most of it has faded away”.

The mother-of-two is studying to become a teaching assistant as she lives in a social flat in Southwark, London, with her four-year-old son and two-year-old daughter.

She receives around £1,270 a month in benefits, but with the pressure of a weekly rent of £124, increasingly expensive energy bills – not to mention the costs of nappies and formula, groceries, Internet, housing tax, debts left by her ex and trips to her son. school – she’s out of pocket at the end of the month.

“People think, ‘You get a grand a month in benefits, that’s so much’ but really, it’s nothing,” she said, admitting she has to rely on supplements from her family. , without whom it could not survive. .

Parents find it harder to shelter their children from the reality of their poverty.

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In an attempt to cut food costs, Angie buys just enough food to fill her stomach, but she says her son notices there is less food in the cupboards and complains of hunger.

He even offered to buy food with small coins which he receives as pocket money, she revealed.

“You don’t plan on getting divorced, you don’t plan on being a single mom, you don’t plan on the public holding you back when you’re down and have nothing to your name,” he said. Angie said. . “Despite all this, it is not you who will suffer the most, it will be your children.”

“Children tend to blame themselves”

Jane Williams, founder of The Magpie Project – a charity in Newham which supports mothers of children under five – said children feel “ashamed and guilty for wanting and asking for things”.

She explained that children from low-income households notice that they “can’t have what their friends have”, adding, “It’s just impossible to understand why this kind of inequality exists and children will tend to blame themselves.

“A mum told me that her seven-year-old son said to her, ‘Mum, we are poor, aren’t we? We are poor’. She said to him: ‘No, we have a lot of love, we are rich in love’.

“Even if the youngest don’t understand the words, they know when they’re cold,” she says. “They know when they haven’t eaten.”

It comes as Dean Johnstone, chief executive of Minds Ahead – a social enterprise that supports the mental health needs of students, staff and parents in schools – said his mental health practitioners have noticed that more and more more families identified themselves as vulnerable.

One in six children aged 5 to 16 are likely to have a mental health condition, up from one in nine in 2017, according to 2021 figures from NHS Digital.

The data also showed that children with a probable mental disorder were more than twice as likely to live in an overdue household, compared to children unlikely to have a mental disorder.

Mr Johnstone added that the transition to poverty is a risk factor for mental health because it is a “forced change” which creates stress and anxiety in the home because “you don’t know not where you will end up or how far will go”.

To tackle the worrying rise in children’s mental health problems, the government has pledged that almost three hundred million children and young people will have 400 mental health support teams in schools across the country by 2023. .

A government spokesperson said: ‘The latest official figures show there were 300,000 fewer children in poverty after housing costs than in 2010 and we continue to provide strong support to further reduce this number, recognizing the pressures people face with the cost of living and providing support worth £22billion this financial year and next to help.

This includes putting “on average £1,000 more a year in the pockets of working families through changes to Universal Credit, lower fuel taxes and helping households with their energy bills through [their] £9.1billion rebate on energy bills” as well as a £1billion household support fund to help “the most vulnerable with essential costs”.

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