The government must extend free school meals

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The story of the last month or so hasn’t been a particularly nice one; as the second wave has emerged, wiping out the partial recovery made during the initial lockdown, the country has had to fall back into various states of restriction without ever having fully recovered. We now find ourselves facing a winter lockdown with fewer resources and less resolve than ever. The government seems to have concluded, therefore, that the right thing to do in this situation is to take away free school meals from the poorest children in the country over the holiday.

They might have a sense of deja vu here, as this was exactly the scenario facing them back in June – they had no intention of extending the scheme over the summer even as parents had either been furloughed or out of work for months. Enter Marcus Rashford, a man who grew up in poverty and now finds himself with a national platform, launching a campaign to extend the scheme over the holiday. Within days, the government cracked and meal vouchers were made available to support struggling families. Yet this time, the government has decided it just can’t afford it anymore, and despite widespread opposition almost every Conservative MP voted not to carry on funding the programme over Christmas.

The cost of extending the scheme is barely a rounding error in the national budget

The government seems to realise that its position isn’t stable; on Monday, both Matt Hancock and Boris Johnson took to the airwaves to say that they agree with Rashford and the campaign, but wouldn’t actually be supporting it, their desperation to not be seen to lose the argument trumping any common sense or compassion. Their tenacity in sticking to this policy is bizarre – the cost of extending the scheme, which costs around £20m a week, is barely a rounding error in the national budget at a time where they’re throwing billions at consultancy firms, and the cost of not extending it is both mass political unrest and, more importantly, starving children.

This response speaks to a complete lack of understanding of the problem on a material level. Not a single member of the cabinet has spent a day of their life in poverty or even less than average wealth, and as a result have no idea how people are supposed to live under the conditions they’re creating.

Even before coronavirus hit, the UK had one of the worst child poverty rates in Europe

The combination of slashing support payments to people out of work from 80% to 67% and the removal of free school meals will be disastrous, but a Prime Minister and a Chancellor who’ve practically been injected with cash since birth have no capacity to understand the pressure this will put the poorest families under. Are they supposed to only have the fridge on 67% of the time? Eat 67% of the food they need to live? Pay 67% of the rent? Or, as Tory MPs have been suggesting, sell off their possessions and drive themselves even further into destitution? All over Christmas, no less? A government that thinks these actions are possible is one divorced from the reality of life under it.

The only reason I can think of as to why the government is so unwilling to cave in is that they’re trying to avoid what’s really needed here – keeping the scheme going year-round after the crisis ends. Even before coronavirus hit, the UK had one of the worst child poverty rates in Europe, the result of a miserly and uncaring benefits system and stagnant wage growth relative to the cost of living. While the response of thousands of cafes and restaurants across the country offering to provide the food that the government won’t is inspiring, these businesses that have been pushed to the wall this year can’t do that forever, and thinking they can is letting the government off the hook. The government has the power and the resources to reduce poverty, and therefore bears responsibility for the fact that so many of us live in it. Providing free school meals is one of the easiest ways to do that, and it’s shameful that our government finds it so hard.

Photograph: Cheshire East Council via Flickr.

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