Terri White: ‘I Grew Up With Nothing. Our New Government Must Prioritise Eradicating Child Poverty’

Terri White grew up in a single-parent family that relied on the welfare state. Now, after 14 years of austerity, she begs whoever enters Downing Street on 5 July to reject cuts and punitive policies.

by Terri White |
Updated on

On a June day in 1979, I was born to a working-class teenage mum, and her older, bad boyfriend. No-one remembers the time of day (or night), knows whether the sun was high, was burning the clouds into absence.

But what I do know is that I landed in an England just six-weeks into a new Conservative government, one working on Margaret Thatcher’s election pledge to 'roll back the state'. Welfare reform that would result in a widening of inequality and a doubling of child poverty. The latter something I would come to know. Painfully, personally.

As I write this, on another June day – just days after my 45th birthday – there’s another seismic election just one day away. One that seems certain to spell the end of the latest welfare-crushing Tory government. I should be ordering in a jumbo bag of party poppers. But I’m not.

For while our country scales new heights of inequality, and plumbs new depths of child poverty, both the current government, and the likely new one in Keir Starmer’s Labour, have spent the last few weeks tap-dancing on the head of the very same welfare pin (see Starmer’s jab at the lack of ‘dignity’ for those on ‘handouts’ this weekend).

It is, quite simply, a brutal, brutal time in our country. And it is most brutal for our poorest children. By any measure. But let’s try a few! Thirty per cent of kids – 4.3million - live in poverty nationally, 48% in my constituency in Oldham. One million kids live in destitution. 900,000 children in poverty have been pushed into it by low wages. The same number aren’t ‘poor’ enough to qualify for free school meals. There are more food banks in schools – they’re in 1 in 5 - than out in the community.

The absence crisis in our schools – impacting over 1.5million kids – sees kids on free school meals three times more likely to be absent. ‘Disadvantaged’ kids are an average of 18 months behind at GCSEs, and two-thirds do not pass English and Maths. A child in one of the poorest areas of our country is ten times more likely to attend a ‘substandard’ school than one in the richest. Children in our poorest areas had a death rate last year that was twice as high – twice – as kids in our richest. The very highest rates were seen amongst our Black and Asian children.

Do you hear me? Do you? You must. And you must see. How the tentacles of child poverty touch every part of a life, cut-off opportunity from birth, wrap around education, health, future earning potential and life prospects. Trap our children in a hardship hall of mirrors, the same reality always reflected back, whichever way they turn. How it kills.

In a sane world, saving our children, eradicating the poverty that harms them and shames us, would be the number one priority of any incoming government. At the very least, there would be a commitment to no further cuts to a welfare state that in its current state worsens poverty, creates it. Because those cuts would simply be catastrophic.

Yet, the two poll-leading parties seemingly prefer insanity, taking hardline positions as a carrot to woo voters that veer right, and a stick to pre-emptively batter those most in need. I’ve watched, increasingly heartsick, as they’ve treated the lives of our most vulnerable children like sport.

In the blue corner! The 'Yeah! Woo! Loadsa Cuts!' Conservatives who cheerily announced a manifesto funded by 12bn hacked from the welfare state. Which boasted of more sanctions, forcing as many of the disabled and the ill into work as possible. Thatcher’s offspring kicking it old-school with a brisk, brutal lecture on why the welfare state is not 'a lifestyle choice'. (Who needs Netflix when you can watch helplessly while your kid’s bones turn to dust. FIVE STARS).

And in the red corner! 'No Austerity But Maybe Cuts' Labour (I’m curious, by the way – what would we call this new period of state-created harm? Definitely Not Austerity? Nosterity?), who have obliquely pledged to ‘review’ Universal Credit, ‘reform’ employment by (hooray!) banning exploitative zero-hour contracts within 100 days but (boo!) is still delivered with their own lecture: 'people who can work, should work, and there will be consequences for those who do not fulfil their obligations.' (Which yes, is fancy-politician-talk for sanctions). And most devastatingly, confirmed they will keep the sadistic two-child benefit cap, the biggest driver of child poverty, and the quickest and most cost-effective way out of it.

I’ll level with you: it makes me feel heavy_._ With the memory, the knowledge…

Of what it feels like to not have enough of what you need.

With the pain of no food, no heating, of never knowing peace.

Heavy with the absence burnt through you by those meant to hold the corners of your safety net, but who instead turn up, mob-handed, to excise your dignity; extinguish the innate human value ignited when someone who loves you kisses your skin for the first time, murmurs your name.

With the betrayal of their words - you’re just like them, just like theirs - while their whispers say they would lie down, welcome death, to protect their own from the way they make you and yours live.

With the opportunities, successes, the choices and chances…lost.

With the joy…lost.

Heavy with the lives gone, the lives that will be stolen, still.

A swell of despair, rage and grief pounds the insides of my eyelids. If I open them, the wave won’t hold its weight. It will break.

The knowledge.

I popped/crawled/was tugged out (no-one remembers) of a super-bright 18-year-old that June day; one who’d already been a wife and mum for two years. That 18-year-old was called Jane. Though some preferred slag, others scrounger.

Our first-female Prime Minister had got to work on women - girls, actually - like my mum. Not just a teenage mum on a council estate but – after the divorce, a hole in the door where my violent dad had legged it from his responsibilities - a single teenage mum on a council estate. Ding ding ding! Her prize the same as the others got: name-calling in the papers, on telly; posher words for the same thing in Parliament.

The memory.

Those early years flicker, blurred pictures, stuttering images, the sound of our single-parent family’s song. Some sown inside me, some planted later by others.

Our first house, I’m a baby, freezing-arses on the toilet outside, glass and rubbish in the garden, I’m falling, I’m falling, my face finds the edges.

Our second, it’s dark outside, inside, mum’s not here. She’s behind the bar of that nightclub in town. Please don’t go. Please stay.

A phone at an ear that’s concerned, a mouth that says I’ve seen that girl, this girl, eating food from the bin behind the chippy.

Two of us need a coat, she can only buy one. I’m the middle child (FFS).

The ShopaCheck Man walks through the door on the stroke of Friday teatime, like a Wes Anderson cuckoo clock. Thick glasses, brown shirt, brown jacket, brown tie, shoes that shine. He collects our debt, pockets the notes, eyes mum, forehead damp, while unlocking the box of 50p coins on the back of the telly. He lifts the slot-meter, pours out the coins slowly like wine. Our chins rise up, throats bared.

The electric meter runs out. It’s dark, I’m in charge, I ask next door (again) to slip me a coin (again) so I can bring back the light.

Mum’s waiting-on, she’s not here.

Mum’s pulling pints in the pub with the Rocky videos upstairs. I’m not there, my body’s here. I’m so tired. Keep punching. Let me sleep.

Mum’s eating last again, eating the least again.

He’s coming down the hall, he’s coming, please, he’s comin-

Safe at nana’s, warm milk in my hands, damp hair drying in front of the gas fire, the comb squeaking.


I’m aware from those early years that we have help, even if that help wasn’t always enough. The words, pieces of paper, hurdles and hoops to get some of what we need. The school uniform vouchers (only where accepted!), free school meals (dinner-lady broadcasting your business with your cornflake tart, miss?), our council house with its own front door and garden (bunkbeds until 18 are a vibe), the free NHS glasses (ever wondered what Deidre Barlow looked like as a child?), the child benefit book that mum despatched me to the Post Office with every week, sending me early when the money ran out (no greater heist than successfully getting that cash).

I left home for University (the first in my family thanks to the full student grant I received), got a job in London, then later New York. And the further I travelled, the more my economic status shifted me into the bracket of the middle class, the more ‘deserving’ I became of the help I no longer needed.

An example of determination! Of what and who the welfare state is for! Of the opportunity available in this country, if you want it enough! The exception they reckoned disproved the damage caused by the state. Knowing nowt of the things I carried with me everywhere, that can never be undone, or outrun, or got over through work, a new-build, or a salary bracket. The absence at my core.

Today, more than ever, this mobility pitch, belief in a person’s ability to pull themselves out of poverty through hard work, is a fantasy. Though one indulged by a Labour party that says, 'hard-working families' with as much regularity and passion as it used to say, 'the working class', by a Prime Minister who speaks of forcing people into work as his 'moral' mission.

Even if we ignore the demonisation of those in poverty, of those who cannot work, the immorality of this rhetoric, we can’t ignore the inaccuracy. The vast majority of kids in poverty – 71% - live in a working household.

And what of the mothers of these children? Their aunties, their godmothers? Women are more likely to live in poverty, and most likely to be impacted by cuts and punitive policies. Since 2010 and the dawn of austerity, the UK’s poorest women have lost an average of 26% from their income to social security cuts. Our poorest. And we take away a quarter of their income, guarantee that the bottom falls out their world. Sure, that’s a class issue, but don’t you dare tell me that’s not a feminist issue, too.

We could talk about the two-child benefit cap that seeks (in an extraordinary state intervention) to tell women how many children they can have. That tells poor women that they are not entitled to more than two.

We could talk about the rape clause tucked inside that policy (I’m going to go out on a limb and say that if your policy needs a rape clause, it’s somewhere between wildly-problematic and deeply-misogynistic). An exception to the cap if you can prove that your child was conceived in rape. And prove it by filling in an 8-page form detailing the assault with 'a third-party professional' declaring that your account is likely true.

How much dignity does Keir Starmer or Rishi Sunak believe is involved in reliving your assault, having to convince someone else that you’re not a liar? All so the state doesn’t plunge you and your children into hardship. Oh, and if you still live with your rapist – because, as we know, women are far more likely to be assaulted by someone they know – you get nowt. You’re not the exception, apparently. Damn straight you’re not.

We could talk about a woman’s right to choose being fundamentally compromised by the state, with the cap proven to have influenced women choosing to abort a pregnancy.

We could talk about how child benefit – paid directly to the mother - has always been the only money many women could rely on, that cutting it from the third child-on hits their already-limited economic independence.

We could talk about women submitting to coercive and violent relationships with men because they at least provide the economic cushion the state refuses to.

We could talk about the women who can’t run, because they know that turning up at the local council office with their kids could see them sent miles away, piled into a one-room hotel and then sanctioned for ‘intentional homelessness’ if they refuse.

We could talk about the women on Universal Credit forced back into work under threat of sanction.

We could talk about the desperate decisions made as a consequence: babies and young children left with unregistered childminders, family friends who turn out to be unsafe or, as in my case, left with new husbands and boyfriends who are predators, given unfettered access to young girls. Who destroy us from the inside out while everyone else looks away and tuts over tax rises.

We could talk about carrying your child’s body inside yours, of the quiet joy when they’re inside, getting what they need every time your heart pumps. And of the bone-deep shame when you’re unable to do the same on the outside.

We could talk. But we don’t. We should scream. But we don’t.

We sigh, alongside our politicians who speak of what little can be done, at the awful choices that simply must be made. But truth time, baby. Poverty is a political choice. And one they don’t have to make.

This election, both the Lib Dems and Greens delivered humanity (and sanity) with their manifestos, committing to specific measures to reduce, if not end poverty, including annual increases to Universal Credit, abolishing the two-child benefit cap, a universal income, and increasing benefits.

They echo the calls of child poverty charities, organisations and think-tanks, who are crystal clear on the steps our leaders could take tomorrow. And none of this is terribly radical. Or new, even.

When the foundations of the welfare state were laid at the turn of the century, kids were prioritised, with ‘welfare clinics’, and free school meals for children 'unable by reason of lack of food to take full advantage of the education provided for them.'

Later, Churchill – who truly did believe that strong children meant a strong future for the country - introduced milk and orange juice. In the ‘40s, child benefit was introduced – as family benefit - to ease child poverty, the pressures on large, low-income families. The reasoning: the more kids, the less a family’s money can stretch (God, I miss logic). It didn’t kick in until the second child and went up with each new one.

Today’s welfare state – with the two-child rule, the benefits cap, and the housing benefit limit - specifically breaks the relationship between the size of a family and their income. And the very system that is meant to help them out of poverty, pushes them into it.

And it’s only going to get worse. With the two-child benefit cap not going anywhere, another 670,000 kids will be impacted by the end of the next parliament, and over half of children in larger families will be growing up in poverty by 2027-28. The ‘societal’ cost of child poverty by then? Over £40bn.

Abolishing it would lift 360,000 kids out of poverty immediately, at a cost of less than 1% of the welfare state. I’m no Carol Vorderman, but come on, man. Or more specifically, come on, Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves.

Our first female Prime Minister made the lives of working-class women and children significantly worse. As did our second (Theresa May introduced the two-child benefit cap). And I am praying that our first female Chancellor doesn’t do the same. But truth time: the moment she and Keir Starmer signed off on keeping the cap, they committed hundreds of thousands of kids who are suffering right now to a life of continuing, worsening hardship, of pain, that neither of them can even imagine. That frankly I can’t - the brutality of today unmatched.

It isn’t a fiscally conservative, or cautious position. The economic argument simply doesn’t stack up, either for the cap, or for poverty generally. And Christ, I hate that we have to make it first. That it's seen as soft, or illogical, to simply say that as a country we should not stand by while our children starve, while our children die.

As a first step we need to rid ourselves of a policy that brutalises children from birth, that punishes them for the circumstances they’re born into. We need to pay a proper living wage. Ensure benefits cover at least the essentials of a life. Say no cuts with the same passion parties say no caps on bankers’ bonuses.


A new image flickers, the reel starts fresh. A baby girl is born to a mother in poverty six weeks into our new government. The spark ignites - the one that tells her she matters - the second her mum’s lips meet her head, that she murmurs her name. This Prime Minister tends to it, keeps it lit, promises that it will never again be extinguished by the hand of the state. Both of them notice the sun, high as it burns the clouds into absence, leaving nothing but clear blue skies.

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