I’m a paediatrician and I see the impact of poverty and childhood hunger
It’s an understatement to say we live in an unequal society. The divide between the haves and the have-nots is vast and is accelerating. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, government policy has driven up asset prices for the rich while the less fortunate are enduring withering declines in living standards.
I see the evidence of this inequality on a daily basis in the emergency department of the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children. I work as a paediatrician in West Belfast, which serves a population that is one of the most deprived in the UK. Around one quarter of children in Northern Ireland live in relative income poverty. My colleagues and I see the effects of poverty manifest in the poor physical and mental health of children and young people. Poor children are twice as likely to die as rich ones. Deprived children are much more likely to be injured. Due to poor nutrition, we look after children with iron deficiency anaemia, constipation, obesity, dental decay and vitamin deficiencies.
Poverty is insidious. It affects you for your whole life. It is indelibly printed into every molecule of your being. Many of us are fortunate to have never known poverty. Unfortunately, some of the children we look after every day have known nothing else. Poverty isolates and devastates. Living from hand to mouth, and the constant worry of not knowing where the next meal is coming from, leaves a lasting psychological and physiological mark. That legacy presents in increased rates of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, respiratory problems and poor mental health in adulthood.
It may be difficult for those of us who haven’t experienced hunger to relate to the recent campaign by Marcus Rashford MBE to extend free school meals over the holiday periods. But Marcus understands what it is like to be hungry. Lord Griffiths also echoed those feelings and described “the mounting panic ahead of school holidays, because the income we had could not stretch to feeding two boys and a mother in that day. Marcus Rashford and I have this and probably only this in common, we remember; not in our heads but in our whole bodies. An old Etonian of course can’t be expected to have the same experience”.
Hungry children are often disruptive children. Hungry children are not able to reach their full potential. Recent research by YouGov, exploring the impact of hunger in the classroom, shows that if a child arrives at school hungry once a week, they lose 8.4 weeks of learning time — 70% of a term over their primary school life.
Poverty is insidious. It affects you for your whole life. It is indelibly printed into every molecule of your being.
I have three children and I know how difficult it is to feed growing boys. Healthy, nutritious food is expensive. Jack Monroe is a campaigner and author, and has written cookbooks about cooking on a limited budget. She has faced poverty and knows the lasting trauma that it leaves. She points out that “it’s easy to live frugally when you have a secure roof over your head, your heating hasn’t been cut off and there’s water in your taps. It’s simple to boil a 12p egg in your saucepan if you’ve got the 99p to buy the whole box and a saucepan to go with it”.
The public response to the vote against the extension to fund free school meals is heartening, with acts of altruism across the UK. But it is not enough.
Years of austerity have had a devastating impact on the one in four children in Northern Ireland living in relative income poverty. The legacy of 2020 will cast a long shadow and we must not allow inequality to grow and continue to blight the lives of our children. It is a basic human instinct to nurture the young. It is a strategic imperative to put children at the centre of policy if we are to unleash their potential for the good of all our futures. The government must make tackling child poverty a priority.
There’s a saying: in every life a little rain must fall. Well, the COVID-19 pandemic feels like a deluge. Enforced lockdowns have led to a rise in unemployment and job insecurity. Friends and family are facing unemployment. The economic situation is likely to get much worse and we cannot allow poor children to endure the effects of poor physical and mental health. Domestic violence is at all-time high in Northern Ireland during lockdown, with a 15% increase in incidents reported to the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Safeguarding children in the midst of this remains difficult and challenging.
Children are innocents in all of this — and that is obvious if you have seen the joy on the face of a disadvantaged child when they get an ice lolly or some apple juice when they are sick. The delight at holiday times when you hand over an unexpected Easter egg, or when Santa leaves some special toys, would melt even the most cynical of hearts.
If you were to ask those children. Do you choose to be hungry? Do you choose to be poor? I can assure you — poverty is not a choice any child would make.
Dr Julie-Ann Maney is a consultant in paediatric emergency medicine at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children. She also works as a forensic medical examiner for the Police Service of Northern Ireland, and the Rowan, the regional Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC) for Northern Ireland.
FactCheckNI describes an alternative measurement of poverty, produced by the Social Metrics Commission (SMC). The SMC measurement indicated that in Northern Ireland, 29% of children were living in households in poverty in 2018/19.