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Seeing Red: Tackling poverty in Thanet

Seeing Red is my regular column in The Isle of Thanet News. This opinion piece was first published on April 11, 2022.

Thanet is in the national news again. But this time for all the wrong reasons. Despite Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s reassurances that even more families wouldn’t be thrown into poverty after the recent Spring Statement, here we are, seeing yet more families being pushed over the edge into avoidable poverty.

The Centre for Progressive Policy has said that coastal communities like ours are the areas likely to suffer most because of the cost of living crisis. Their research shows that Thanet has more than 1 in 5 residents struggling with food bills, 1 in 10 struggling with fuel costs, a child poverty rate of 34% and that a whopping 29% of residents are classified as ‘working age inactivity’ although official unemployment is 6% . Today we hear that benefits have plunged to their lowest value in 50 years!

Our local MP isn’t worried though, he says our financial woes could be met through increased domestic tourism, as less people travel abroad. Mr Mackinlay believes we will benefit, because of “increased fuel costs, flight disruption and people getting more used to staycations during the pandemic.”

I can’t agree with this oversimplification. I doubt our beaches and sea bathing are quite as attractive as our MP thinks, especially with the unresolved sewerage issue. Southern Water is dragging its feet over fixing the problems after last summer’s record breaking fine of £90M, when the privatised firm spewed billions of litres of sewage into our waters.

How many staycation holidays will it take to move Thanet’s economy from zero to hero? Aren’t the glut of Air BnBs helping to fuel a local housing crisis?

In February more than 200 local residents joined me and co-signed letter to South Thanet’s MP to complain about his attitude towards rising poverty. We highlighted that his environmentally unfriendly suggestion to end the green tax on fuel would neither address poverty nor help us to be more sustainable and reach our carbon emissions targets.

To date we have had no response to this letter.

It isn’t the first time I’ve contacted our MP about climbing levels of poverty in South Thanet. Back in 2015 I complained that more that 50% of Thanet’s children were living in Poverty in some of our poorest wards, or 1 in 3 of all local children.

We all know what a monumental challenge Covid has been. And in truth we are far from out of the woods. Like many, I had a brief feeling of optimism – that we could do things differently, better, more fairly, post Covid. That we might strive to improve our local economy. Indeed I thought it was possible to tackle and reverse poverty. In June 2020 The New Economics Foundation launched their “Build Back Better” campaign which called for an economic recovery that provides ‘more funding for the NHS and social care, tackles inequality, creates good jobs, particularly for young people, and reduces the risk of future pandemics and climate emergencies’.

Not only has this been sidelined but we’ve witnessed stratospheric amounts of money, billions of pounds in fact, lining the pockets of Tory party supporters or lost to fraud. Nor have the Conservatives levied a windfall tax on the gas and oil companies which could have funded £1.2B worth of help for households struggling with a 54% rise in household energy bills.

Poverty isn’t inevitable and can be tackled, but only if the Government is willing!

Earlier this year at Kent County Council I stated that the cut to the £20 a week uplift to Universal Credit would lead to poor health outcomes and increased child poverty. The Government knew that the removal of this vital cash would impact 4.4M of the poorest households, seeing the annual income of 5.1M adults and 3.5M children fall by £1,000 overnight. This cut means £19M is missing from the pockets of the poorest in Thanet, it also means £19 million missing from the local economy. (We’re going to need a lot of holiday makers, Craig.)

This was before the cost of living crisis got going and prior to the huge increase in energy bills, which gone up by around £2000. Food bills are rising faster than wages, with prices going up by 8%. We are seeing the highest cost of living rise in 60 years. With inflation at its highest level 30 years. We are the only G7 Country raising the tax of working people. The planned 1.25% national insurance hike this week looks like it will also hit locals hard.

Families in Thanet are struggling more than ever. We know the impact of child poverty don’t we. Youngsters from impoverished backgrounds are more likely to:

  • Have poor physical health
  • Experience mental health problems
  • Have a low sense of well-being
  • Experience social deprivation
  • Feel unsafe
  • Experience stigma and bullying at school.
  • Lag behind at all stages of education.
  • By the age of three, poorer children are estimated to be, on average, nine months behind children from more wealthy backgrounds.
  • At the end of primary school, pupils receiving free school meals are estimated to be almost three terms behind their more affluent peers.
  • By 14, this gap grows to over five terms.
  • By 16, children receiving free school meals achieve 1.7 grades lower at GCSE.
  • Poverty is also associated with a higher risk of both illness and premature death.
  • Children born in the poorest areas of the UK weigh, on average, 200 grams less at birth than those born in the richest areas.
  • Children from low income families are more likely to die at birth or in infancy.
  • They are more likely to suffer chronic illness during childhood or to have a disability.
  • Poorer health over the course of a lifetime has an impact on life expectancy: professionals live, on average, 8 years longer than unskilled workers.

The long term costs are huge. So, I’d like to ask our local MP again, what is he doing to tackle the blight of long term poverty? I think as a start the least he could do is to acknowledge and answer the letter from 200 local residents.