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CEO Blog: The cost of poverty in childhood

28th April 2023 by Jamie Masraff, Chief Executive, Onside

Currently, over three million children live in poverty in the UK. Three million! We sadly see headlines like these too often, and it baffles me that there isn’t more public uproar about the injustice of it all. Perhaps as a nation, we’ve become desensitised, or we cannot comprehend the reality behind the numbers. But each statistic is a child or young person, dealing with obstacles they did nothing to create and too often can do nothing to remove.

Hearing personal experiences behind the numbers and stats brings to life what it’s like for families struggling to make ends meet. The tensions felt at home because of money worries, parents and carers panicking daily about putting food on the table, children not having quiet spaces at home to study, teens taking cold showers in winter because they worry a hot shower is too expensive. This is the reality I hear about when I visit our Network of Youth Zones.

Josh, aged 11 and a member at Wigan Youth Zone. He comes from a loving and caring family who struggle with the cost of living, his parents are often worried about how to provide daily meals, which also worries Josh. Thankfully, the recent offer of free meals at the Youth Zone has helped ease the stress Josh was feeling, giving him space to just enjoy being a child – spending time with friends and doing activities he loves, like rock climbing. Because a child shouldn’t have to worry about whether they are going to have anything to eat for dinner.

One of the reasons this injustice irks me so much is that it’s all down to the lottery of birth. I was lucky to attend a fee-paying school on a scholarship. Seeing children who had everything for no reason other than blind luck, but who still had no understanding of their incredible privileges created a burning desire in me to try to level the playing field for young people.

The three million children living in poverty also often face additional barriers like limited access to educational resources, nutritious food, and healthy living environments. They’re already several yards behind their more privileged peers when starting school. With personal tutoring and extracurricular activities unequally distributed and often only available for those who have the means, the gap only grows. Is it any wonder that 36% of young people from poorer backgrounds feel they will fail at life? Their mental health and wellbeing inevitably suffers as a result. The lost potential is a huge loss for our society and economy.

Care and attention are lavished on those with all the opportunities in life, it should be the same for those without. Part of the solution is to ensure that young people, particularly those from the most disadvantaged areas, have dedicated spaces to explore their potential, find their passion, and connect with youth workers who believe in them. Young people who had a trusted adult in their life were less likely to experience mental health problems, and 64% of young people who had someone to talk to reported good mental health, compared to only 34% of those who did not, according to the Prince’s Trust’s research.

That’s why our Youth Zones are designed to be packed full of opportunity. They help level the playing field by offering mentoring and support, employability, leadership opportunities, exposure to young people from various backgrounds, skills development and more. The most crucial part of any youth centre are the youth workers. Having someone believe in you and tell you that you’re good at something is monumental and may be missing in many young people’s lives.

Research by UK Youth found that investment in youth work saves society £3.2 billion annually. By investing in our young people now, we’ll create a generation that’s willing and equipped to contribute to society – not only is it morally right, but it also makes economic sense. The issue of youth poverty cannot be ignored, and providing opportunities for young people to try new things, develop skills, and connect with trusted adults who believe in them is essential. Let work together to support young people who need it most, and to provide them with the resources and opportunities they deserve.

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