Deck the halls with boughs of holly,” wrote Thomas Oliphant in 1862. “‘Tis the season to be jolly.” For many families across Northern Ireland, however, Christmas spirit will be in short supply this year, as they struggle to afford the basics, such as food and heating.
New research for the charity Action for Children found more than a quarter of working parents will take on extra work, or forego time off, in order to pay for Christmas.
Eight in 10 working parents are anxious about soaring energy bills and prices in shops, while more than a third (37%) said they felt under pressure to give their children a happy Christmas after last year’s was curtailed by Covid.
The reality is, Northern Ireland has seen precious little progress in addressing child poverty in the life of the current Assembly.
Analysis published by the End Child Poverty coalition earlier this year showed that, in spite of some improvement, one in four children in Northern Ireland (24%) — around 95,000 in total — still lives in poverty. In 2015/16, the figure was 26%.
Council areas with the highest levels of child poverty include Belfast (26.1%), Londonderry and Strabane (26%) and Newry and Mourne (26.3%).
Within Belfast itself, the inequalities are stark: in north Belfast, one in three children (30%) grows up in poverty — 50% higher than in the south of the city (20%).
The data covers the period up until March 2019, so does not take account of Covid-19. The real picture is therefore likely to be even more bleak.
Action for Children found working parents here have five main money worries: rising energy bills (80%), increasing prices (80%), the price of food (72%), car fuel costs (72%) and affording warm winter clothing (44%).
The charity is launching its Secret Santa campaign, asking the public to gift the cost of food, heating, or a fun activity for a vulnerable child. This is, of course, a supremely laudable objective.
But it is unacceptable that the heavy lifting is, once again, being left to the voluntary sector and Northern Ireland people’s fabled generosity.
Worse, it is a dereliction of duty by our politicians and policy-makers.
It is easy to sit on your hands and do nothing, as if there is something inevitable about child poverty; like the poor of St Matthew’s gospel which you will always have with you.
However, there is nothing inevitable about child poverty: it is the direct result of increasing unemployment, historically high rates of disability and long-term illness, low wages, poor-quality part-time jobs and obstacles to working mothers.
Many of these are the result of government policies and almost all can be improved by different — better — policies.
The Executive must prioritise increased welfare mitigation and again extend the Poverty Strategy 2016-2019 beyond May 2022.
It may be too late for this year, but only concerted action will hold out the prospect of happier Christmases to come.