Camilla Kingdon: Cuts to Universal Credit will leave children hungry

The number of people claiming Universal Credit has increased by 98% since March 2020. Increased levels of unemployment and job insecurity have meant that families that were “getting by” before the pandemic hit are now slipping into poverty.  

As part of the financial support package introduced at the start of the pandemic, payments of Universal Credit were increased by £20 a week. However, the UK government have recently confirmed they intend to cut these payments to pre-March 2020 levels at the end of September. 

If the cut goes ahead this autumn, modelling by the Joseph Roundtree Foundation (JRF) indicates that half a million more people—including a further 200,000 children—will be dragged across the poverty line in the biggest overnight cut to social security since the Second World War. It must not happen. The loss of £20 from a week’s budget can, quite literally, mean children going hungry—or parents going hungry so their children can eat. It can mean being unable to afford to put the heating on. For many, it will mean choosing one or the other.  

Increasing rates of child poverty is perhaps the surest indicator that child health outcomes will continue to worsen, and health inequalities will be further entrenched.  

Just days before the first lockdown, we published our report on the State of Child Health, the largest ever compilation of data on the health of babies, children, and young people across the UK. On almost every measure we saw that those living in deprived areas were doing less well than their peers. Worryingly, the gap between the health of children from wealthy or deprived backgrounds was widening and we know that it has increased thanks to the pandemic.  

And for all our prime minister’s talk of “levelling up,” the families hit hardest will be those in the North of England, Wales, the West Midlands, and Northern Ireland. I’m reminded of the harrowing picture painted by a fellow paediatrician in Belfast, recounting how she had seen toddlers in her emergency department who, when given a sandwich while they waited, hid the crusts in their nappy so they could be sure they had something to eat later. That was a year ago, before the full impact of this pandemic was being felt. 

How are those children doing now, I wonder? How will they be doing in five, ten, twenty years’ time? We have heard Marcus Rashford eloquently describe how it feels not knowing where your next meal is coming from. Research shows it can leave a lasting psychological mark and is also a contributing factor in increased rates of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, respiratory problems, and poor mental health. 

The government have repeatedly said they want to ensure all children get the best start in life—but children cannot have a good start if they’re growing up in poverty. The proposed cut to Universal Credit will increase the number of children who will be disadvantaged in terms of physical and mental health, safety, and wellbeing.

If we are to start to reverse the trend of increased inequality, we need to act now. 

Child health and wellbeing must be made a national priority. Long term plans and policies for post-pandemic recovery must have children at the heart. We must invest in those who have indirectly borne the brunt of this pandemic and whose futures we have already borrowed against for the sake of our economy. 

Reducing child poverty makes sound economic sense, too. Giving our children a healthy start in life reduces disease across the life course, and that means less pressure on child and adult services and better educational outcomes and life chances. It’s an investment which pays dividends. 

Today’s children are 100% of our future. They will soon become tomorrow’s parents, leaders, and the workers who drive the country’s economy. Creating the best environment for all children, will produce a population of physically healthy and resilient young people who in turn become healthy, happy, and productive adults. 

The college is one of a number organisations from around the country and across many sectors imploring ministers to think again. Keep The Lifeline—led by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation—wants those who oppose the cut to write to their MPs asking them to tell the Government to scrap their proposal. As doctors who see the impact on children’s lives in our daily practice, we’re asking you to add your voice to this vital campaign.

Camilla Kingdon, President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health.

Competing interests: none declared.