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Bleak House: Child Hunger in the UK
Victorian Ideals for a Modern Problem
The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights included in its scope a basic right to food as a fundamental human right. However, in the UK Sir William Beveridge had beaten this declaration to the post by 5yrs: the 1942 Beveridge Report which laid the foundations of the post-war welfare state had realised the importance of food security to a society with an aim of having a minimum accepted standard of living below which no one should fall.
But current UK politics and the prevailing political ideology is far removed from the Beveridge Report, and resembles a Victorian moral code which views poverty as a personal failing and views the less well-off as “undeserving”. To paraphrase Dickens, the choice in the Victorian era was between starving slowly in the workhouse or outside it. Modern Britons in areas of social deprivation face a similar choice: poverty has become expensive, from a dual-threat of real wage stagnation and decline, and cuts to welfare benefits, combined with increasing costs of living.
Food prices have increased in real terms, exacerbating the fact that low-income families already spend a disproportionate amount on food as a percentage of disposal income compared to well-off families (1). Far from Michael Gove’s statement that Britains families accessing food banks in the UK have “…only got themselves to blame for making bad decisions”, the evidence demonstrates the contrary: families on low-incomes have adapted their diets as a result of austerity policies (2). The consequence is nutritionally adequate diets are difficult to achieve (3). In the UK, families in the lowest income bracket would have to spend 75% of their food budget to meet the most basic Eatwell Guide nutrition targets, compared to 6% in the highest income bracket (4).
Against this background context, the flip-flopping by the Tory government throughout the Covid-19 pandemic on the provision of the free school meals program out of term (or during school lockdowns) is hardly surprising. On the 21st October 2021, a motion before parliament to extend the provision of the free school meals program to Easter 2021 was shot down with 322 votes against (317 of which from Tories).
Ultimately, this course of action was slightly averted to include provision of vouchers and food parcels, themselves inadequate remedies, but this reversal of course was not grounded in the basic human right or slightest benevolence of the Conservative Party, but the public humiliation of the government spearheaded by Marcus Rashford.
Now, in June 2022, the government is refusing to extend free school meals to all children of families receiving Universal Credit.
The politicisation of this basic issue along the lines of the political spectrum also belies the fact that this is an evidence-based issue. But evidence counts for little when we discuss the role of poverty in determining health outcomes.
So let's talk about evidence.
The Marmot Report (5) clearly highlighted that free school meals provides a powerful indicator for the effects of socioeconomic deprivation on adverse outcomes at each stage of educational development. The figure below from the Marmot Report depicts the stark difference in educational attainment between children not receiving free school meals (i.e., generally higher socio-economic status, dark-green bars) and children receiving free school meals (light green bars). In this regard, free schools meals acts as a proxy for socio-economic disadvantage, and already it is clear that children receiving free school meals are heavily disadvantaged at every stage of education attainment. The disparity goes wider as the key education stages increase, all the way to higher education.
One of the reasons why free school meals are critical in this stage is that the evidence shows that children with poor test scores in the early foundation and key education stages can in fact catch up by ages 8-10 if they are from high-income households. However, children from low-income households are not only extremely unlikely to ever catch up, but will largely worsen by age 10. This is illustrated in the following figure, also from the Marmot Report:
Nutrition is a critical factor in these developmental stages, and this goes beyond childhood nutrition. The long-term deleterious consequences of in utero maternal under-nutrition are more clear now, across a range of cognitive and behavioural outcomes in childhood, adolescence, and adulthood (6). The evidence demonstrates that continued malnutrition through childhood also impairs cognitive development, and hunger is associated with lower cognitive control and performance impairment (7).
And let's consider the economic factors, which is all this comes down to from a Tory perspective: expenditure on social programs for children earlier in the life cycle is more effective in improving long-term outcomes than social expenditure later in the life cycle (5). Programs targeting cognitive development are most important, because behaviours remain modifiable at a later stage in adolescence, while IQ starts to stabilise between 8-10yrs: hence why divergent resources at this stage results in a domino-effect for the remainder of adolescence all the way to higher education. Thus, even if we take the Tory economic ideology at its highest and each member of society is merely a unit of production, then the dream of a Thatcherite economy of individual-productivity waged labourers would be more efficient if it was well-fed.
The reality is that this is a moot point: expenditure on any social programs that benefit the population are anathema to the Britannia Unchained doctrine. How much did this government spend on its “world beating” track and trace system for the Covid-19 pandemic? £10 billion, with consultants getting £7,000 a day? But since you can't privatise and outsource hungry kids, the Conservative Party doesn’t have the intellectual capacity to grasp any other options.
Of course, the decision to let hungry children and their families fend for themselves isn't necessarily surprising, as it reflects a fundamental tenet of the Britannia Unchained doctrine of unbridled neoliberalism: "personal responsibility".
Let’s talk about responsibility. But let’s reframe the concept to corporate responsibility. Governmental responsibility. Moral, ethical, and social responsibility. Because by any standards, this is an administration since coming to power in 2010 that is utterly devoid of moral compass, ethical standard, or social conscience.
Let’s talk about the consequences of their policies. From the end of the 19th Century, life expectancy in England increased by 1yr every 4yrs. That ended in 2010. Now, women in the areas of greatest social deprivation in the UK can look forward to declining lifespan .
Since 2010, disability-adjusted life years increased (i.e., years living with good health decreased).
Since 2010, health disparity between the top quintile of income and bottom quintile widened by orders of magnitude.
Since 2010, regional disparities in health also widened, with the peripheries suffering substantially more than London.
Since 2010, the lower down the income scale you were, the greater the you were disadvantaged by government policy changes.
Since 2010, food bank use in the UK population has increased exponentially.
Since 2010, spending on welfare for families was slashed by 40%. The slashes to local government expenditure in the poorest 10% of areas was double the cuts in the top 10%.
Since 2010, overall per capita government spending was cut by 20%. The real value of unemployment benefits declined. The support period was shortened. The Social Fund was eliminated. More aggressive access criteria for benefits has led to a disengagement with the benefits system, even when people are eligible.
Since 2010, the use of sanctions has more than doubled after 2010, affecting the most vulnerable workers in the economy and increasing reliance on low-skill and gig economy jobs.
So it is difficult to listen to talk of “personal responsibility” from a band of empathy-devoid callous and incompetent public schoolboys since they ascended to power in 2010.
The Bleak House: only the most callous of ruling classes could preside over the levels of food poverty in the UK, over this kind of blighting in society, and think it’s doing a good job because public spending as a percentage of GDP is down.
Is there something uniquely British about this state of affairs? A modern manifestation of Victorian ideals, in which “the people” should just accept and and put up with brutal and unstable conditions, while decisions are made by a few under-competent and over-entitled dullard elites.
"When people begin to ignore human dignity, it will not be long before they begin to ignore human rights." Gilbert Chesterton
Tait C. Hungry for Change. London: Fabian Society; 2015.
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Food Statistics Pocketbook. London: DEFRA; 2017.
Caraher M, Furey S. The economics of emergency food aid provision. 1st ed. London: Palgrave Macmillan.; 2018.
Scott C, Sutherland J, Taylor A. Affordability of the UK’s Eatwell Guide. The Food Foundation; 2018.
The Marmot Review. Fair Society, Healthy Lives. London; 2012.
Stephenson J, Heslehurst N, Hall J, et al. Before the beginning: nutrition and lifestyle in the preconception period and its importance for future health. Lancet. 2018;391(10132):1830-1841.
Mayneris-Perxachs J, Swann J. Metabolic phenotyping of malnutrition during the first 1000 days of life. European Journal of Nutrition. 2018;58(3):909-930.