With a warning from the Children’s Commissioner that “child poverty is now the Welsh Government’s biggest challenge”, Plaid Cymru’s spokesperson for Social Justice and Equalities, Sioned Williams MS, writes about the need for action if the government is serious about tackling this issue.

This article was published in The National on Saturday 10 July 2021

In 2011, Welsh Government set the ambitious but “fundamental to social justice” target of eradicating child poverty by 2020. In 2015 it restated its ambition.

By December 2019, when Welsh Government published their Progress Report, the targets had been dropped.

This wasn’t because there was no child left living in poverty – rather, this was because child poverty figures remained “stubbornly high”. In fact, they had increased by one per cent from the previous year, to 29 per cent.

Perhaps they hoped that no-one would notice that 1 in 3 of our children were living in poverty? Add a global pandemic into the mix, and it seems certain that these figures won’t just be “stubborn” but will have moved in the wrong direction.

Indeed the latest research from the Bevan Foundation ‘A snapshot of poverty’ tells us that of those households with a net income of £20,000 or less, one in five have seen a drop since January.

In contrast, costs of living continue to increase, with the Bevan Foundation reporting that 43 per cent of households are spending more on utilities, and 38 per cent finding they have to spend more on food – and this is just since January of this year!

If efforts to eradicate child poverty have failed, what is the Welsh Government doing to alleviate some of the negative consequences?

One of the most immediate ways to help children in poverty is ensure they have a free, nutritious meal. The Welsh Government already has a free school meals policy, and indeed, because it extended this over the school holidays last year, it managed to escape the well-publicised criticism that fell on the UK Government. Who recalls the campaign by the footballer Marcus Rashford?

But the truth is that the Child Poverty Action group found that half of children in poverty in Wales are missing out on free school meals. That’s over 70,000 children! What’s more, the results of the Labour government’s own review into Child Poverty came to the same conclusion.

This was a report that was meant to be published in 2020 but the Labour government refused to publish it. Instead, it was obtained through a Freedom of Information request by Plaid Cymru earlier this year.

Plaid Cymru has repeatedly made the call for the eligibility criteria to be extended to include these 70,000. The answer from the Welsh Labour government? “No.”

Yet this week we learned that 19,000 more children have been included in the free school meal programme since January 2020. This should have given us cause for celebration - were it not for the fact that this wasn’t to do with the Welsh Government extending their criteria. Rather it’s because of 19,000 more children have sunk below the poverty threshold.

We shouldn’t have to wait until families sink so low into poverty they finally become eligible – especially when experts have already said that the threshold is too low.

The benefits of receiving a healthy, nutritious meal every day are more than just stopping hunger. Children are more alert, they learn more, and are healthier in the long term. In addition, it can help ease the pressure of parents worrying how they’re going to pay the bills and put food on the table.

While free school meals have been likened to trying to put a sticking plaster on an ever growing wound on Welsh Society, with child poverty now deemed by the Children’s Commissioner as Wales’ “biggest challenge” the Government seriously needs to rethink its current approach before more of our children are added to this terrible statistic.