No such thing as a free lunch

We seem to have a problem in Britain with whether we want to help our poorest families.

It’s not just a problem with definition – who is and who isn’t poor – it is where two groups of people talking about poverty are coming at it from two totally different places. This is marked by the government’s decision this week not to extend free school meals into half term, but rather to bank on the benefits of Universal Credit.

On the one hand free school meals benefit from the targetted work of schools, to ensure good diet, although there’s some evidence that free school meal vouchers beyond school have been spent on other items like clothes. On the other hand, while Universal Credit has been criticised for the difficulties of making a claim, it does hand responsibility for managing spending back to families.

The free school meal approach is an example of social policy which targets resources towards greatest need. The pupil premium grant allocated to schools has been a more precise method of reaching the most vulnerable than what went before. It aims to resource schools to improve the attendance, welfare, achievement and diet of our most vulnerable children. The more we act to improve a wide range of measures, the more likely we will send children out into the world as all-round successes, instead of better-fed failures. Some schools have developed a compelling formula which rapidly increases both the academic success and human care of children on the free school meal list. Failure to improve a family’s social mobility leaves a negative legacy for generations to come, whereas one life transformed today can create a positive ripple effect through the lives of relatives far into the future.

Universal Credit simplified the benefits system, rolling together six “legacy” benefits (including unemployment benefit, tax credits and housing benefit) into one benefit paid monthly. Its purpose was to make it more efficient and increase the incentives for people to work rather than stay on benefits. However, the Child Poverty Action Group report significant concerns about how Universal Credit is working. Claims are often mishandled, the law applied wrongly in a decision, or evidence lost by the Department of Work and Pensions. Its record on supporting people with housing and disability costs is also not good. Universal Credit aligns with development economics, which gets families to manage budgets, not the government. International charities might hand cash to mothers who spend it on projects like fish ponds or crop fencing, so that children eat better food while savings from cash crops help to pay for daughters (not only sons) to attend school. A happier present and a brighter future. Such aid often works, but only where children are not already at risk of starvation. Right now in the UK, for a significant and increasing minority of children, we face a kind of first-world-famine. Five million families currently face some sort of food insecurity and 200,000 children may miss lunch today. And look at the national scandal of food banks. The £150 million spent on unusable masks earlier this year would have covered the costs for this week.

But there’s a deeper problem beyond this half term window. While some voices demand urgent action, others are silent. Dozens of councils, including some which are Tory led, have stepped in to feed children. The government has “misunderstood the mood of the country,” says Tory MP Bernard Jenkins.

It’s reached the point where the government has abdicated its duty, and handed responsibility for feeding our poorest children to football players and shopkeepers.

And what lurks beneath this? Deep-seated beliefs about poor people, it would seem, summed up by two messages from two Tory MPs:

First, this tweet by Ben Bradley (MP for Mansfield): “£20 cash direct to a crack den and a brothel. That’s what free school meal vouchers in the summer effectively did.”

Second, this facebook post from Selaine Saxby (MP for North Devon): “I am delighted that our local businesses have bounced back so much after lockdown that they are able to give away food for free, and very much hope they will not be seeking any further government support.”

To stigmatise all working-class families as good-for-nothing drug addicts, then mock the generosity of sacrificial shop-owners is shameful.

Monstrous messages, made by those who should know better, and who should be helping out, and who have forgotten that its children we are talking about.

While back at the chalk-face, schools have identified those most in need of help (not always obvious as many are too proud to sign up for meals), have made a flawed voucher scheme work, and have effectively become one-stop shops, a kind of social service at the centre of it all. In the meantime our so-called central government has retreated to the margins.

If a school’s responsibility is to safeguard our most vulnerable children, then a nation’s (beyond national security) is protecting the families who can least look after themselves. It’s the basis on which our best political leaders chose their vocation. But when ministers have forgotten their first love, the ‘why’ behind their role, it suggests priorities are all over the place. When you face a crisis and money is tight, you don’t apologise because your systems dictate what you can and cannot do. You change them. Ministers appear to be afraid that by extending free school meals into half term they might risk giving the poorest families a little too much.

There is, it is clear, no such thing as a free lunch.

Great political and moral leaders hunt out the most vulnerable and align their actions to help them. We know when leaders are genuine because there is a kind of moral introspection, they are visibly burdened by the responsibility of where society needs them most. This starts with an appreciation that people who are poor are fellow human beings.

We fiercely guard our society’s ability to help those in need. Over lockdown this was achieved by individuals and key workers, our businesses and councils are stepping up this week, but from this point on it is our elected ministers and MPs representing the needs of the poorest, who need to show up.

“Are there no workhouses?” marked the literary crusade by which Charles Dickens challenged the institutions of his day.

“This boy is ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.”

This is why we in schools we teach literature, for within it lies truth about humanity, not ignorance of it.

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