Dan Jarvis, MP for Barnsley, commented on a recent Any Questions held in Malton that “The level of child poverty in Ryedale is unacceptable”. He went on to acknowledge that child poverty is not just an urban issue.
Child poverty in rural North Yorkshire
Here in North Yorkshire and the Thirsk & Malton constituency, it is too easy for people to only see the ‘wealth’ of the county: rolling landscapes, grand houses and associated estates, relatively low levels of unemployment, little evidence of ‘de-industrialisation’ and low population density. All of these things mask inequalities, one of which is child poverty.
Campaigners in Ryedale have continued to highlight the fact that data from the government and more recently from the End Child Poverty Coalition (together with the Centre for Research in Social Policy at Loughborough University) shows that the number of children living in poverty remains unacceptably high.
In Kevin Hollinrake’s Thirsk & Malton constituency, 1,949 children were found to be living in poverty in 2021/2022; that is 12% of children aged 0-15. In same period in Ryedale, 2,156 (21.4%) of children were living in poverty. In Hambleton the number was 2,950 children (18.1%). In fact, more children in Thirsk & Malton are living in absolute poverty since Hollinrake became their MP.
Impact on children growing up in poverty
Data lags behind the reality of the pandemic legacy and cost-of-living crisis, but we can see more and more children are growing up in poverty. This will affect their life chances for decades to come. One such impact was detailed in Michael Marmot’s recent Guardian article ‘Britain’s shorter children reveal a grim story about austerity, but its scars run far deeper’. The article claims, “since 2010, our five-year-olds have been showing signs of reduced growth, a likely symptom of policies that have led to impoverished lives”.
He goes on to say:
“The social circumstances of early childhood, including good nutrition, are linked not only to height, but to educational and social success. Height, then, is both an outcome of conditions in childhood and an indicator – by which I mean that shorter height is a likely reflection of adverse conditions that will affect other aspects of children’s development: cognitive, linguistic, emotional.”
“The link between height, nutrition and social circumstances can already be seen in childhood … the greater the deprivation, the shorter the child. The height of individuals is mainly determined by their genes, but the differences between groups, and trends over time, are largely the result of differences in exposure to nutrition, infections, stress and poverty.”
Support for children in poverty is being reduced
At a time when child poverty is a major concern, support for those children is being reduced. Support schemes for those eligible for free school meals (FSM), pupil premium funding and ‘Covid catch up’ schemes is under threat.
FSM data from January 2022 reveals that 12,767 children in North Yorkshire were eligible for FSM. That is, 15.4% of all state school pupils in North Yorkshire, an increase from 14% over the previous 12 months. This is the highest proportion since records began in 2015.
Nationally,800,000 children who live in poverty are not eligible for FSM, as the criteria are too narrow. The earnings threshold – £7,400 combined household annual income (pre-benefits, post-tax) – has remained unchanged since its introduction in 2018, despite soaring costs of living. The government is ignoring the demand that FSM eligibility be expanded.Now, more than ever, more children need this nutritional safety net.
Widespread pressure from campaigners, such as Marcus Rashford, to feed FSM children during school holidays, led to the government eventually providing limited funding linked to holiday club provision. But holiday support has been reduced. In October 2022 the Co-operative reported:
“The Government has quietly withdrawn direct funding for holiday food vouchers, leading to the scheme being axed in some parts of the country. Instead, already overstretched councils are being asked by the Government to fund the vouchers using the Household Support Fund. But the Government’s own guidance says that the fund ‘should primarily be used to support energy bills’, and many councils don’t have enough left over to pay for holiday food vouchers.
“Local councils have an impossible choice – fund food vouchers for children or help the most vulnerable in our communities such as the elderly and the disabled with their soaring energy bills.”
In addition, last summer, schools saw a reduction in pupil premium funding (worth approximately £1,000 per eligible pupil, includes those on FSM) after the government changed the way eligibility was calculated. As a result, in North Yorkshire, over 800 of the most vulnerable pupils will miss out this year because of this change.
Child poverty figures do not show the full picture
The impact of poverty on life chances for those living in Thirsk & Malton is highlighted by Rural Services Network Report ‘Rural as a region: the hidden challenge for Levelling Up’. The report is a response to the government’s levelling up white paper, which is almost silent on rural disadvantage and how it affects 12 million people.
The locally commissioned report ‘Rural North Yorkshire: The Way Forward’ by Rural Commission, came to similar conclusions. It found that differences within regions are greater than the differences between regions. Targeting improvement at a regional-level risks leaving communities/ households/families behind. Why is this? Because the government’s metrics do not properly account for the pressures facing our smaller towns and villages and, as a result, effectively side-line 12 million people.
This view was further illustrated by Mark Shucksmith, professor of planning at Newcastle University, who said “Nobody should be disadvantaged because of where they live…But poor and vulnerable people in rural areas very much are. Life is tough for anyone living in poverty but those who live in the countryside face a very specific set of additional challenges.”
Rising cost of living in rural areas
His and his colleagues’ research identified that the challenges facing people in the countryside include a lack of public transport, lack of affordable food, seasonal working patterns and unreliable mobile phone coverage and internet access. “If you’re receiving benefits you will be told to attend an appointment many miles away,” Professor Shucksmith said, “but how are you going to get there if you don’t have a car and there are no buses or trains where you live? If you don’t attend the meeting you won’t get the benefits you rely on. So what do you do? It’s a Catch 22 situation that many people living in rural areas face.”
“The rising cost of living is also hitting households in rural Britain even harder than those in towns and cities,” explains Dr Jane Atterton of Scotland’s Rural College. “This is because they have to spend a higher proportion of their household income on fuel for transport and on heating their homes which tend to be older, poorly insulated and often not connected to mains energy supplies.”
Researchers for the book Rural Poverty Today: Experiences of Social Exclusion in Rural Britain heard how the complicated benefits system puts people at a disadvantage, particularly those with poor digital skills or lacking internet or mobile phone access. The way the benefits system is designed makes it difficult for people with irregular incomes (linked to seasonal work) and can actually exacerbate financial hardship for the people it sets out to help.
Poverty is easily hidden in rural communities as the affluence of many incomers can obscure the hardships of others.
Rural poverty in North Yorkshire
Recent evidence from the 2022 Rural Commission report shows the factors that drive rural poverty and ultimately child poverty. This includes:
- North Yorkshire has a two tier wage economy. Employment levels are high but do not reflect the variable quality of employment. Many rural workers are dependent on seasonal or part-time employment, with many working multiple jobs and / or facing job insecurity.
- Earnings in North Yorkshire are lower than the national average. In 2022 weekly average earnings in the county £536 versus £587 national.
- Earnings also vary significantly between rural and urban areas and different sectors of the economy. In Ryedale weekly average earnings (2022) £509 compared to Harrogate £647.
- The county faces a ‘Brain Drain’. Talented younger people leave North Yorkshire to access Higher Education.
- High house prices relative to local earnings – ‘In North Yorkshire there is a significant shortfall of affordable homes in large parts of the County and an acute housing shortage within the National Parks. The general high cost of rural housing means that the region is unaffordable for low / medium income families.’ Rural house prices are 39% higher than in urban areas across England (excluding London), with rural villages and hamlets increasing to 55% higher…’
- Rural renters also face pricing and availability struggles. Prices jumped 11% post pandemic, compared to just 2% in urban areas. Rural households on low income spend 47% of their earnings on rent compared to 43% for those in urban areas. There has been a 61% drop in the availability of rental accommodation in rural areas since 2020.
- Even before the dramatic rise in fuel costs, rural households also faced a greater fuel poverty gap. The reduction in fuel bills needed to take rural households out of full poverty is £501, compared to an England average of £223. Many rural properties are off the gas grid, the estimated energy cost is 10% higher in rural areas, increasing up to as much as 17% in Yorkshire and the Humber. Also homes in rural areas tend to be less energy efficient with 60% of rural homes having an EPC of D or below.
- Poor transport networks ‘People who live in super sparse and rural areas need to travel for school, employment, shopping and health facilities. This raises issues that include accessibility, affordability and environmental impact.’
- Poor / weak broadband / connectivity / low % of premises with super-fast broadband all impact on children (access to learning) and businesses. 20% of all premises in rural North Yorkshire have no broadband coverage at all. Only 19% of rural premises can receive 4G service (all mobile operators) compared to 65% urban areas. Rural residents face a lack of choice of provider and slow broadband speeds.
- North Yorkshire has a large number of small schools (primary & secondary) which face challenges such as financial, breadth of curriculum, recruitment and retention of staff. Post 16 access to further education often involves limited choice of provider and a narrower range of courses available. ‘Children attending small rural schools achieve better educational outcomes than urban children yet are less likely to go on to further and higher education.’ This impacts on job opportunities and impact on life chances for young people.
Government seems unable or unwilling to tackle rural poverty
All the above drive rural poverty and ultimately child poverty.
The government seems unable or unwilling to address any of these issues whilst being happy to remove the safety net provided by public services. Without government backing, rural communities will have to rely on self-help and charity support to support the most vulnerable.
In a decade, the last Labour government reduced the number of children living in poverty by one third from the 3.4 million inherited from the Conservatives. Tragically, in its first decade the Conservative government drove the number inexorably back up to 3.2 million.
Leaving children to live in poverty is a political choice.