Marcus Rashford
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Marcus Rashford: When did child poverty turn political?5 min read

From the earlier months of the pandemic, Manchester United and England footballer Marcus Rashford MBE actively campaigned for the extension of free school meals. 

Free school meals are a government scheme eligible for children whose parents claim out-of-work benefits, including some on Universal Credit.  Earlier in the year, Marcus Rashford proposed the extension of the free school meals scheme over the summer holidays, which was initially rejected by the prime minister. Boris Johnson later changed his mind after pressure from both the public and politicians alike. Rashford took to Twitter to announce his next plea.

The new appeal was swiftly met with denial from Johnson, who appears to be set on not changing his decision this time. 

In response to Rashford’s proposal, a spokesperson from 10 Downing Street said: “While schools continue to play an integral part in the community, it’s not for them to regularly provide food during school holidays.”

In defence of their stance, No. 10 added: “We’ve got a whole range of additional support to make sure that children and their families don’t go hungry during the pandemic […] there are other programmes that the government funds to help disadvantaged children outside of school term.”

Not going away anytime soon

The fairly abrupt and decisive statement from Downing Street was inevitably met with outrage from a range of people, regardless of their politics.

The England footballer, who has spoken out about his experiences of relying on free school meals is at the forefront fighting for change.

Let’s look at the facts: 

Something that has never failed to surprise me is society’s reaction in blaming culture as the cause of poverty. Why do many associates living in financially unstable conditions to being unemployed, lazy and at fault? 

Regardless of the opinion people might have about the parents claiming out-of-work benefits, a message I would like to strongly echo from Rashford is that children are never at fault.

As someone who grew up in a working-class background, I never felt insecure or embarrassed by not having the newest phone, or clothes on a non-school uniform day, or by what I was eating for lunch. However, there were pockets of middle/upper-class students and I can see how stigmas can be prevalent in a classroom where such different social classes are integrating. 

I was lucky enough to have parents in jobs that could put a roof over my head and food on our table. Nonetheless, I am also aware of the constant embarrassment and wrongful shame felt up and down the country by parents who are too anxious to ask for support.

It’s the social narrative created by the upper classes that stimulate these negative connotations around asking for help.

The proposals from Marcus Rashford are not long-term solutions for the poverty crisis the country is facing. But instead, a short-term defence to help families make ends meet, especially during the pandemic.

The majority of my hostility towards Johnson’s refusal is due to the Tory government’s complicity in the increase of poverty each year.

Throughout Rashford’s campaign, Tory MPs have managed to make the topic of feeding children a highly politicised one. This is clearly not about politics, it’s about humanity.

Downing Street, London
Nick Kane/Unsplash – Downing Street, London.

At what point did the political landscape reach such a level of toxicity that helping to feed vulnerable and hungry children, became a topic of debate in the House of Commons? 

Especially, when the causes of the increase in child hunger are directly interconnected to the policies of the Conservative government. Austerity, minimum wage and precarious contracts in jobs are just a handful of factors that have amplified the impact of Covid-19.

Not only has the Coronavirus inflicted havoc on people’s health and livelihoods, but it has also exposed the fragility and incompetence of Tory policies. 

British society is critical and opinionated about any high profiled actor, activist, singer, or sports star, and Rashford is no exception.

While orchestrating and leading the task force to end child poverty in the UK, Rashford is also still a key first-team player in the Manchester United and England football team, which presents him with a double-edged sword.

For years, footballers have been criticised for their high-paying, arguably easy jobs. But this doesn’t reflect their contributions to society. Rashford has actively dismantled this narrative by using his Twitter platform of 3.5 million followers to raise awareness of child hunger through direct tweets to politicians and circulating petitions. 

Being outspoken and openly oppositional to the government will always invite unwanted opinion, with many of his critics telling him to “stick to […] football”. But was it not Matt Hancock urging footballers to take a pay cut earlier in the pandemic to assist the NHS?

We cannot pick and choose when we want and don’t want celebrities to assist in social change. This must be an ongoing task for every person with a platform. I for one, hope that Rashford will always continue to campaign for urgent matters.

Following Marcus’ recently awarded MBE, his contributions to society and football are the examples I hope many young players and footballers too will follow his footsteps.

As each day passes, Rashford continues to prove he is a hero both on, and off the pitch.

If you have been inspired by this story, here are links for places which would appreciate any help you can give: 

https://fareshare.org.uk/donate/

https://www.trusselltrust.org/make-a-donation/

https://www.savethechildren.org.uk/what-we-do/hunger

https://www.magicbreakfast.com/

 

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