It’s a question that most of us have heard before and it’s certainly been ringing around in my ears for the past few weeks. Usually it’s met with enthusiastic responses and leads to discussions about holidays, trips, and adventures – all tinged with a sense of anticipation and excitement.

It is an understandable reaction – even in the summer we are not always fortunate with the weather (particularly in the North East of England), and we look forward to some sunshine and relaxation, a break from the normal stresses of everyday life. But in asking the question ‘got anything nice planned for the summer?’ we assume that, in a country like ours, opportunities for summer sun and stress relief are in reach for everyone.

Difficult reminders

Run down housing in the North East

In reality, for families struggling to stay afloat, talk of days out and holidays abroad are difficult reminders of the unseen, often hidden impacts of poverty in the UK.

4.6 million children in the UK are currently living in poverty according to new measures released this week and over 70% of these children live in a working household.

Despite working, for these families the summer is not a time of beachballs and barbecues; it’s actually a time when they find it more difficult to keep their heads above water.

Despite UK employment levels reaching their highest point since 1971, an increasing number of families are struggling with increased living costs, insecure jobs and low wages which makes it difficult for them to make ends meet.

Children at risk of going hungry

Over the summer families lose the life raft of Free School Meals and breakfast clubs which go some way to easing the food pressures that families face during term time. Figures suggest that three million children are at risk of going hungry in the UK this summer. As a result, families are worried about how to make already stretched budgets stretch even further to feed their children over the holidays.

This is so pronounced that schools have reported they order in extra food for lunches on the first days back after the holidays, and many other organisations have established and are carrying out programmes to combat ‘holiday hunger’. The reality is that the summer holidays place extra pressure on the already constrained ability of families living in poverty to feed their children.

How free are free activities?

Paddling in the stream in wellington boots

Moreover, it is not just about food, but also about the social opportunities that children growing up in poverty miss out on over the summer. The summer can be a time of anxiety for parents, who spend countless hours trying to dodge the dreaded ‘I’m bored’ complaint and organise activities and entertainment for their children.

In total, research by the National Citizens Service suggests that paying for activities can cost parents over £1,000 more over the course of the holidays, money which for many families simply doesn’t exist.

Of course, there are plenty of great free activities for children over the holidays: but actually, how free are free activities? Add in the cost of bus fare or parking, a picnic, an ice-cream, the lure of a strategically located gift-shop, and all of a sudden the free day out has ended up costing too much.

Choosing between an ice-cream or a new school jumper

Child holding an ice cream

Parents can and more importantly do turn down requests from their children, shrugging at the ‘I’m bored’ complaint and counting down the days to when schools are back. But we must question how it actually feels as a parent to always have to say no.

This is not about saying no to an ice-cream because dinner is prepared, or the queue is too long, or because they already had a small bag of sweets in the morning. Although this is what the children might be told, the reality is parents have to say no because the choice is between ice-cream and money on the electric meter for the next couple of days.

It’s the choice between an ice-cream and having enough money for the bus to work. It’s the choice between ice-cream and buying a new school jumper for September. In a country like ours we should have an economy which gives everyone the option to choose.

Opportunities of childhood should be for all

This is a reminder that for too many people in the UK the summer provides no respite from the storm of poverty. The summer brings waves of increasing costs: childcare, food, and entertainment, not to mention back to school shopping and purchasing school uniforms - all of which affect those families that are already finding day-to-day life difficult.

Nobody wants to live in a society where families are forced to stand in front of an ice-cream cart, trying to calculate whether the electricity will run out if they buy their children a lolly each. We want to live in a society where the opportunities and benefits of childhood are available to all – whether in the form of a fair and equitable education, or in terms of a simple ice-cream cone, enjoyed in the sun with the family without being hindered by the grey drizzle of poverty.

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