FREE SCHOOL MEALS AND POVERTY
Free school meals are once again at the top of the political menu in Covid-19 (CV) times, a political football. Marcus Rashford, an international footballer with Manchester United, demands free school meals be continued in school holidays and inevitably there is high support for the idea. During term time, children from low-income families get a free school lunch on schooldays (not weekends). Who qualifies for this benefit? The rules vary in each of the four nations of the UK, another oddity of devolution. Fundamentally in England the child’s household must be entitled to one of a number of benefits provided by central Government (UKGOV) – for example receiving Universal Credit provided its post-tax income is less than £7400 per annum (ignoring benefits). In other nations principles are similarly based but not identical. Also, the amount of poverty and the need for free school meals varies from area to area, and school to school, even in a single local authority.
To contextualise, in the UK some 4-5 million children are estimated to live “in poverty”, the definition of which backs off average earnings: so, it is a relative test, not an absolute one. The biggest causes of poverty are thought to be lack of parental work or working with low hours and/or low pay. Other critical factors are said to include low parental qualifications, parental ill-health, family instability and family size: the more children, the more likely is poverty. No real surprises in that list. For many, poverty is temporary, and for some more persistent. The level of child poverty shames the UK.
And then of course, raising, including feeding, a child is primarily the responsibility of the two parents, not the role of the state, which steps in to protect the vulnerable. Encouraging parental responsibility and supporting those who struggle to bring up a child are at the heart of the philosophy behind the state benefits system in the UK. Unfortunately, many children in poverty are in one-parent families (usually their mother) and the relevant father may or may not be making a proper financial or other contribution. Does society sufficiently enforce that obligation?
In the pandemic, job insecurity and poverty have been exacerbated. All political parties in principle have reduction if not elimination of child poverty as a goal, though there will be disagreement on how to do it: successive governments of all colours have made different levels of progress but progress has not ben impressive. Hand-outs are not perhaps a long term answer; but enabling parents to parent well and earn enough to be independent; a bit like in much poorer developing countries where it may be better for charities to teach self-sufficiency than merely provide bread for a day. Deploying scarce state resources, in demand on every front, in the right way to get a good balance between parental responsibility and state aid has never been more challenging because of the pandemic.
LEADERSHIP IS BIGGER THAN SATISFYING THE LOUDEST VOICES
Free school meals have been put front and centre by Marcus Rashford. Others join his demand for them to be provided by UKGOV during all holidays at least for now – obviously a major concern will be that it will become the default position without balancing it in the scheme of the benefits system. It will of course be a brave person who resists the call which, as Jeremy Warner in the Daily Telegraph of 23 October observed, “is an issue laced with righteousness”. As he says, to argue against it only invites comparisons with Scrooge. But UKGOV, and Parliament, voted against extending free school meals as demanded. There is outrage from some quarters and that will mount up as the media storm gathers force. 2000 doctors have signed up in support of the cause. The cost of the provision will, in the context of the CV remedies, be minor and so why not go with the idea? In the media the anticipation of a U-turn is salivating.
However, it will be a strange way to govern if, due to media pressure and celebrity backing, policies are adopted to pay for good causes that may be promoted – the potential list is endless. Arguing which are the most virtuous will be pointless. Is Gary Lineker or any other “celebrity”, rich beyond the dreams of most, to be the arbiter of taxpayer spend pretending that twitter is the voice of democracy? Maybe it is time to ignore twitter in assessing the mood of the people.
Providing benefits, such as free school meals, is part of the overall benefits system. It may well be a good idea to extend the free school meal programme, but it would have to fit into budgets which include an assessment of the entirety of the benefits system. Also, as regions vary in the needs of children, perhaps the better way to fund the amelioration of hunger will be to provide central cash to local authorities and for them to prioritise the spending. During the pandemic it would be easy to concede, for no other reason than a quieter life to reduce vitriol against UKGOV actions, to Marcus Rashford and his followers. Leadership can involve saying no, even if unpopular with influential sources, but in that case UKGOV must justify its decision. Is anyone listening? Every support programme adds to the central borrowing which must ultimately be repaid. Perhaps this idea of extending free school meals should be specifically funded, and perhaps another support programme should be reduced to pay for it. That would make some sense. Within local communities there are numerous initiatives where local people to an area are contributing to schemes to provide meals for those in trouble. Perhaps those should be linked with a UKGOV support package? In addition, the extension of free school meals has made acceptable a voucher scheme for food. Perhaps, elements of the cash benefits system should be represented by food vouchers, and even perhaps only for healthy food, to minimise parents spending on bad food and less important consumer products. Or maybe that is too big brother? It is perhaps worth proper debate, though it would mean recognising that some parents may not be, or may be incapable of, behaving responsibly.
On the other hand, a practical strategy to reduce child poverty is surely essential. Perhaps one will emerge: it must be part of levelling up? At the central government level, its most valuable contribution will be to encourage growth and productivity to create the resources necessary to provide the training and back-up to enable parents to improve their ability to get better paid work and get care for their children. Since every region will have different needs to alleviate poverty, and it will only be local knowledge which can identify the genuinely needy, perhaps solutions such as providing food support should be devised locally, not depend on central dictation.
In the meantime, it will be surprising if UKGOV does not concede a free school meals extension or come up with an alternative way of getting food to hungry children.