The Hunger Games

I know I said I wouldn’t blog about politics, but I have to backtrack because it seems everything is political these days.

Yesterday 322 British MPs voted down a motion to provide 1.4 disadvantaged children in England with £15-a-week food vouchers during school holidays until Easter 2021. In other words, elected members of parliament voted against measures that would help alleviate food poverty among children in their own constituencies.

Food poverty was already a growing problem across the UK before Covid-19, and it’s been getting steadily worse since. Recent surveys point to a doubling of the level of food insecurity among households with children since the lockdown started. Food banks have seen demand rise by 80-120% since before the pandemic, and with unemployment expected to rise sharply in the coming months, economic insecurity is bound to worsen.

Only a few months ago, Marcus Rashford, the young footballer behind the initial campaign to extend school meals and himself a former beneficiary of free school meals, forced the government into a U-turn, thus ensuring that vulnerable children got free food vouchers of the summer break. But, this time around, the prime minister whipped Tory MPs to vote against the motion.

Listening to the arguments against raised against the motion in the Commons debate yesterday, I didn’t know whether to scream or cry, mostly I just sat with my mouth open, not quite believing what I was seeing and hearing. One after another, Tory MPs got up and argued against the motion on the grounds that it’s not the state’s job to feed hungry kids, but parents’ responsibility, and besides, there’s only so much money available to spend on those in need.

Let’s not forget, however, that the same government that last night voted down a bill aimed at easing child food poverty in the midst of a pandemic saw fit to spend a whopping £12 billion on a privately run test-and-trace system that doesn’t even work. As George Monbiot writes in a recent article in The Guardian, “[t]he test-and-trace system might be a public health fiasco, but it’s a private profit bonanza. Consultants at one of the companies involved have each been earning £6,000 a day.”

As for the argument that it is parents’ responsibility, not the state’s, to feed their offspring, when said parents lose their jobs as a direct result of state-imposed lockdown measures, well then yes, it’s the state’s damn responsibility to ensure kids don’t go hungry.

Voicing his despair following last night’s Commons vote, Marcus Rashford released a statement urging politicians to “[p]ut aside all the noise, the digs, the party politics and let’s focus on the reality. A significant number of children are going to bed tonight not only hungry but feeling like they do not matter because of comments that have been made today. We must stop stigmatising, judging and pointing fingers. Our views are being clouded by political affiliation. This is not politics, this is humanity.”

He’s right, of course. Ensuring that children’s basic needs are met, especially at a time of national crisis, should transcend politics altogether and the fact that it doesn’t, serves as a stark illustration of Britain’s arcane but deeply entrenched class divisions.

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