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Families stuck in the ‘hidden poverty’ trap
FOR most people, child poverty conjures up images of Oliver Twist-esque ragged children or those starving in the Third World.
But, according to the Campaign to End Child Poverty, as of February last year, 8,345 children in Oxford were living in poverty – up 28 per cent from the previous year.
This means one in four children in Oxford are not able to afford more than the basics.
And while that might be a surprising statistic for some, the problem is not easily spotted on the streets.
While some children have computer games and televisions in their bedrooms, often families that are affected cannot afford a car, go on holiday or put fresh food on the table.
For many, school lunches are their main meal of the day and their brand-name trainers are second-hand.
This “unseen” poverty is witnessed every day by Laura Wilson, who meets families who are struggling to cope with the rising cost of living.
She is the deputy manager at the Agnes Smith Advice Centre in Blackbird Leys Road at the heart of what was ranked Oxford’s most deprived estate by official figures from Oxford City Council in 2011.
She said: “People come to us when their benefits have been capped or stopped and sometimes for information about food banks.”
National child poverty figures may have gone down, but she said that more children than ever are living below the breadline in Oxford.
Ms Wilson said: “It’s not necessarily rags, but children may not have nutritious meals and they might only be able to have one meal a day.”
Blackbird Leys has one of the highest rates in the city, with 39 per cent of the estate’s children affected.
Ms Wilson said: “For most families, if they can go to work they are on a low income, and other families can’t go to work because they can’t afford the childcare.
“There are not as many jobs around as people think there are.”
She added poverty does not always live up to stereotypes of sleeping on the streets and begging for any spare change.
Katharine Thompson, author and researcher of a new report into child poverty in Oxford for children’s charity Viva, which is due out in September, said: “It is more complex than not having shoes or food on the table.
“Poverty can be very hidden. It is a bit like an iceberg – in the most severe cases it is very obvious but not so much in others.
“Some people can need help with budgeting so they can prioritise what they should be doing. “Children might have great clothes and amazing toys and big flat screen TV, but they [their parents] might be in terrible credit card debt.” Oxford City Council’s social research officer Mark Fransham said he was not surprised the number of children in poverty was going up.
Mark Fransham, Oxford City Council’s social research officer
He said: “The last Government figures for Oxford that we have are from 2011, but we have plenty of anecdotal evidence that people are struggling to buy food and meet housing costs.
“Oxford is a notoriously expensive place to live.”
He added the city’s housing situation was making the problem worse.
“We have got a lot of families living in private rented housing because there’s not enough low income housing,” he added.
The east of Oxford is particularly badly affected, with 27 per cent of children in the Oxford East constituency living in poverty, compared to 12 per cent in Oxford West and Abingdon.
Oxford East MP Andrew Smith said: “Cuts in benefits are certainly making child poverty worse, and other things are too, like wages being held down for many low-paid workers, and the very high cost of housing locally.
“It’s important to remember that many children in relative poverty are in households with people in work.
“This makes the Living Wage campaign especially relevant.”
Mark Goldring, chief executive of Cowley-based charity Oxfam, said: “These figures reveal the economic recovery is not making enough of a difference to the poorest, many of whom are facing a daily struggle to put food on the dinner table. Politicians of all parties need bolder, long-term policies that can help people move up the rungs and out of poverty.
“We have seen the unacceptable levels of poverty that exist in one of the richest countries in the world and call for politicians of all stripes to urgently address the issues that are keeping people in poverty.”
‘Our only proper meal is at Christmas’
KELLY-ANN Strange’s children – Jordan, eight, Brandon, five, Lewis, three, Camron, two, and eight-month-old Kai – are five of the hundreds of children in Oxford living in poverty.
Mrs Strange, 36, and her husband Simon are unemployed and the family survive on benefits.
She said: “We can’t afford to buy proper food. We only really eat proper meat around Christmas when my mum buys us a hamper.
“In the winter it’s a choice of putting on the heating or getting hot food.
“The cost of living has gone up so much, a milk voucher doesn’t even cover baby powdered milk.”
The Blackbird Leys Road resident said: “Things have gotten so bad since our benefits were capped, it’s been really hard on all the family.
“It means the kids can’t get any new clothes – even the oldest is wearing second-hand – and we can’t take them anywhere.
“They don’t get to go out and be social because they can’t get off this estate and they only have each other to entertain themselves.
“We haven’t been on holiday in six years. I can’t even afford to take the kids up to my mum’s in Liverpool because the trains cost too much. It’s heartbreaking. We’re sick of it.”
Earlier this year Mr Strange, 47, said the family needed more support.
‘It breaks my heart people have to use food banks’
MANAGER of the Rose Hill and Donnington Advice Centre, Carole Roberts, said: “Things are getting worse.
“Government legislation, like capping the benefits, and the bedroom tax, hasn’t helped.
“Rose Hill has such a migrant society and where they could claim benefits now they can’t, and sometimes they can’t get a job.
“People are waiting for six to nine weeks for benefit changes with no money at all. There’s nowhere for people to go any more.”
She added: “Rose Hill is not the family estate it used to be, people are coming and going all the time because of the high rents in the area, which are astounding.
“It breaks my heart to know that people have got to use food banks.”
How poverty is defined
OFFICIAL figures include children who fall into two categories of poverty.
The first is defined as children in households with below 60 per cent of the median national income of £26,500.
That means children whose parents are working, but are earning less than £16,000 a year before taking in housing costs.
The second group is children whose parents do not work and instead receive benefits.