More than 1 million families with children will rely on charity food parcels this Christmas, new research suggests, prompting calls for ministers to better support households whose income has been hit by the coronavirus pandemic.
Findings published by Save the Children indicate that 37 per cent of Britain’s poorest families – about 1.3 million – will turn to food parcels over the festive period, while 21 per cent, or about 760,000, will rely on donated gifts.
The research, based on a survey of 1,000 parents on universal credit or child tax credit who have children under 18, suggests that of the 3.6 million such families across the UK, six in 10 will go into debt over the Christmas period, while one in three will resort to borrowing on credit cards.
It also found that 69 per cent of the low-income families surveyed said they were more worried about their finances since the pandemic, with 84 per cent of these reporting that they would struggle to cover the cost of Christmas this year.
The Independent’s Help The Hungry campaign is working to deliver hundreds of thousands of meals to the most needy, working with The Felix Project and With Compassion. Our readers have helped raise millions to go to families struggling to put food on the table amid economic turmoil sparked by the coronavirus pandemic.
One parent who will be relying on donated food this Christmas is Rebecca, from Norfolk, who lives with her eight-year-old daughter. The 35-year-old single mother, who works as a parent support coordinator for a charity, said universal credit was “not enough to live off as it is”.
“My sister-in-law is going to give us a chicken for our gift this year, as my daughter really wants a roast dinner. For everything else, we rely on our local church who give us food parcels,” she said.
“It’s food that the supermarket can’t sell, so it’s luck of the draw what we get – sometimes it’s just some out-of-date bread and a lettuce. But even if it’s out of date, it’s at least something. I don’t know what we’d do otherwise.
“Last year a charity gave us a Christmas tree, so we still have that, which is nice. On the one hand it’s so nice to have so much help, but on the other hand it’s demoralising. I want to pay for things myself, but the government just doesn’t give us enough support.”
Rebecca said that although she is not a “frivolous person who spends money on nonsense”, she was struggling to pay for heating as well as food, and this has become even more challenging during the winter months.
“We’re frugal and we use blankets and jumpers, but when you’re literally counting every single penny, even a bit of extra heating gets so expensive,” she added.
Save the Children is warning that more children will be plunged into poverty as a result of the pandemic, with job losses and the costs of lockdown forcing many families to cut back on food and electricity, rely on food banks or run up debts to get by.
The most recent government figures on child poverty, published for 2018-19, show that 4.2 million under-16s live below the poverty line – 30 per cent of the UK’s child population – and experts say the figure is likely to have increased considerably since the first lockdown in March.
The Children’s Commissioner warned in an interview with The Independent last week that a generation of poor children may “never recover” from the impact of the public health crisis, as they are pushed deeper into economic hardship due to job losses among parents.
Research by the charity Turn2Us meanwhile revealed that almost half of families with children have been forced into some form of debt since the start of the pandemic, amounting to about 3.6 million families.
Dan Paskins, director of UK impact at Save the Children, said many struggling families had seen their household budgets “stretched to the limit” by the pandemic, and would continue to feel the economic impacts of the crisis for “some time”.
“Every parent wants to protect the magic of Christmas for their children, but when you’re already having to make impossible choices between heating your home or putting food on the table, there’s nothing left over for gifts or treats,” he said.
Mr Paskins urged the government to commit to keeping in place the £20-a-week uplift to universal credit – an increase that was introduced in April to help families cope with the pandemic but which is set to be removed in April next year.
He said: “Christmas is going to be especially difficult for many families this year, but the impacts of growing up in poverty will continue to affect children long after the Christmas lights come down – especially if the government takes away over £1,000 in benefits from families from April.”
Iain Porter, policy and partnerships manager at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, echoed the calls for the government to commit to maintaining the £20-a-week boost to universal credit, adding: “As unemployment rises and more livelihoods look uncertain, it would be a terrible mistake to cut this vital support for families in April.”
A government spokesperson said: “We have always been committed to supporting the lowest-paid families. We have announced a £400m package of support for this winter and beyond, including £170m to help families stay warm and well fed, millions in support for food aid charities, and £220m to help children through the Holiday Activities and Food programme.”