Two in five children in poverty are not eligible for free school meals

Charity says many children do not qualify for free school meals despite living below the poverty line.

07/12/20

Two in five children in poverty are not eligible for free school meals

An estimated 1.3 million school-age children who lived below the UK’s poverty line were not entitled to free school meals prior to the pandemic, new analysis shows.

Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), says that all of these children are in families in low paid work but do not qualify because of stringent eligibility criteria.

CPAG estimates that another 100,000 school children across the UK (who are not covered by universal infant free school meals) are in families with No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) because of their immigration status. Many of these children will be living well below the poverty line but are not usually eligible for means-tested free school meals.

The charity says the findings show that the income thresholds for eligibility have fallen far too low and fail to support many families, in particular those living in in-work poverty. It is urging ministers to go beyond providing temporary food aid to low-income families in the holidays and at a minimum take up Marcus Rashford’s call to extend eligibility for free school meals to all families on universal credit or equivalent benefits.

In England 1.2m children below the poverty line are ineligible for free school meals, in Scotland 45,000, in Wales 70,000 and in Northern Ireland 20,000. CPAG estimates that expanding eligibility for free school meals to include all UK families receiving universal credit (or equivalent benefits) would make 2.2 million children newly eligible at a cost of £900 million a year.

CPAG also calls for the recent temporary extension of eligibility to families below the income threshold who have no recourse to public funds, to be made permanent. It says the cost of this expansion of eligibility would cost a maximum of £46 million per year but it’s likely to be a lot less than this as not all 100,000 children will be below the income threshold.

Alison Garnham, Chief Executive of Child Poverty Action Group, said: “The evidence on the benefits of free school meals is really strong. Children’s school results improve when entitlement is expanded and the pressure on family budgets is eased – so struggling parents are better placed to meet other essential living costs. Yet more than a million children in poverty are not getting a free school meal. That isn’t right – not in normal times, never mind in a pandemic when so many are seeing sudden drops in income.

“The public support for him suggests that few would quibble over providing a £2.30-per-day meal for every child as a basic entitlement. Free school meals won’t end child poverty alone but they will go a good way towards protecting children from hardship and helping struggling families to stay afloat.”

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