UK children ‘a pay cheque away’ from going without essentials

“We’re literally living hand to mouth at the moment. We don’t have savings to fall back on” 

A new analysis of official figures by Action for Children today (Thursday 23 April) suggests the majority of children in the UK are living in families with little or no savings to shield them from the unprecedented economic disruption to family finances expected from the coronavirus crisis.

A month into a lockdown that has seen millions of jobs put at risk, the charity’s pre-pandemic snapshot shows at least 8.6 million children – nearly two-thirds (63 per cent) of all children in the UK – were living in families with savings less than the average monthly income (£1,569). Half of children (51 per cent) live in families with no savings at all.

With ongoing problems with Universal Credit and delays to vouchers for free school meals, Action for Children is warning these families are now teetering on the brink and has launched an emergency appeal to help families facing months of hardship, struggling to pay for essentials like food, nappies and utility bills. 

The research also found a stark North-South divide in family savings, showing those in the North East were most likely to have little or no money set aside for the crisis (71 per cent), compared to those in the South East (56 per cent) who had the largest financial safety net.

Michelle*, a mum from Dunfermline with two girls aged eight and one, has been a self-employed hairdresser since November 2019. She and her partner’s incomes paid for the mortgage, bills, food shops and to ensure their children had warm clothes. When coronavirus hit, however, they started to struggle: “I was bringing in a steady income and we were relying on that to pay for the food and all the things for the girls. My partner’s salary covers the mortgage and bills, but I would pay for all of the extras such as food, stuff for the girls and other things we needed – it mainly sustained the basic needs we have.

“But then coronavirus hit and I was no longer bringing in an income. My partner was able to take on extra shifts but that meant he was working himself into the ground and I was so worried about his mental health with him working and worrying so much.

“I was being really careful with food, making sure the kids were getting fed first and I was just eating smaller portions. I was tending to not want to eat in the end and my appetite was just fading.

“My youngest is only one and we were just weaning her off from breast feeding but then the shops started running out of milk and with only the one wage, we couldn’t afford the powdered milk so I’ve had to go back to breast feeding more often. My body is so tired, it was preparing to stop and now I’m having to push it to let me keep feeding her.

“I wasn’t furloughed, I just can’t work because of the situation. I’m not entitled to any self-employment support as I haven’t long been a hairdresser and because of my partner’s wage.  I received a letter to say I can receive Job Seekers’ Allowance but was told before I couldn’t. I’m worried about the issues people face getting government money and that I’ll then be in a worse situation having to end up paying it back.”

Michelle reached out to the Action for Children family support practitioner she had met through baby classes and was offered support from the charity’s Emergency Coronavirus Appeal fund. She said: “I was getting so frustrated. We’ve been working and making our own money and then suddenly, I’m not able to provide for my family.

“Thankfully I’ve been given a £100 voucher to get food for the family. I’ll be able to buy powdered milk, which I definitely couldn’t afford without it. It just makes me feel so relieved. I was so stressed and now I don’t need to worry. It really makes you realise that regardless of your circumstances before, anyone could need help right now. It’s ensuring that I can put food on the table for my little girls.”

Carol Iddon, deputy chief executive at Action for Children, said: “Millions of vulnerable families with children were struggling to put food on the table even before they were hit by the economic impact of this once-in-a-generation health crisis. A month into lockdown, they are hanging by a thread.

“Action for Children’s frontline staff are battling to help frightened families come out the other side of this but are overwhelmed by the sheer desperation of those who are only a pay cheque away from no longer being able to keep their children and babies warm and well fed. 

“With so many families close to breaking point and many more on the breadline, we’re supporting struggling families all over the country through our emergency appeal to help them pay for essentials, and are asking people to donate to Action for Children. But the government must act too, and use the most effective way we have of getting help to children, by increasing child benefit by £10 a week.”

To support Action for Children’s Emergency Coronavirus Appeal which is helping families cover the cost of essentials like food, nappies and utility bills, please visit actionforchildren.org.uk, call 0300 123 2112 or text ACTION to 70175 to give £10.

* Name changed to protect identity

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