More than a third of children are being forced to grow up in poverty across the North East, with the situation getting worse as a result of soaring housing costs and cruel cuts.

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic piled more misery onto struggling families, a lack of support plunged more youngsters below the breadline, heartbreaking figures shows.

With the UK facing a growing economic crisis, data published by the End of Child Poverty coalition has revealed the number of children in the region living in poverty has soared from 26% in 2014/15 to 35% just four years later.

Newcastle Central, South Shields and Middlesbrough in particular have seen sharp rises in the number of children living in poverty in 2018/19.

At a local authority level, the highest rates of children living in poverty in the North East are in Middlesbrough (41%) and Newcastle (39%), closely followed by Hartlepool (37%), South Tyneside (37%) and Sunderland (36%).

In the past, campaigners say, cheaper housing costs offset low incomes in these areas - but now rent is rising at the same rate as the rest of the country.

And Labour MP Chi Onwurah, who represents Newcastle Central, said: "What's horrifying is that we're the sixth richest nation in the world, and yet this is happening.

"A significant proportion of children in poverty have at least one parent in work, so what the last 10 years of austerity have done is shown that work doesn't pay anymore."

Chi Onwurah.
Chi Onwurah.

Since 2014, soaring costs of living have outstripped wages, leaving families increasingly reliant on foodbanks and free school meals, reports The Mirror.

In recent weeks the government has come under fire after rejecting hero footballer Marcus Rashford's call for free school meals to be extended over school holidays before eventually U-turning on the decision.

The package includes a £170m Covid winter grant scheme to support vulnerable families in England and an extension of the holiday activities and food programme to the Easter, summer and Christmas breaks next year.

But experts warn that after the problem was allowed to snowball for years, it will get worse before it gets better.

Anna Feuchtwang, chair of End Child Poverty, said: "The government can be in no doubt about the challenge it faces if it is serious about ‘levelling up’ disadvantaged parts of the country.

Areas of the North and Midlands have seen sharp rises in child poverty
Areas of the North East and Midlands have seen sharp rises in child poverty

"This new data reveals the true extent of the hardship experienced by families on low incomes – the overwhelming majority of which were working households before the pandemic.

"The children affected are on a cliff edge, and the pandemic will only sweep them further into danger."

Campaigners have called on the government to launch an "ambitious plan" to tackle the child poverty emergency before it is too late for a lost generation.

Professor Donald Hirsch, from Loughborough University's Centre for Research in Social Policy, said: "This evidence shows that even before Covid, child poverty was rising alarmingly in many areas of the country.

"For example, in Leicester, it rose from just under three children in ten to nearly four children in ten, between 2015 and 2019.

"The Covid crisis has helped to highlight what it means to grow up in a low income family, with many families now finding hard to meet basic needs and the use of foodbanks rising."

Although the government has temporarily increased Universal Credit support during the pandemic, Prof Hirsch said: "This follows a period in which the value of such help declined, with no increases to cover rising costs between 2016 and 2019."

End Child Poverty is calling for an urgent Government plan to end child poverty including:

In just 12 months the number rose by a huge 100,000 to 4.2 million, figures from the Department for Work and Pensions showed in March - 600,000 more than when the Tories came to power a decade ago.

Overall there are 500,000 more people living in poverty than there were a year ago.

Since 2015 the number of children living in poverty in Britain has risen by 400,000 before housing costs are taken into account - meaning one in six children, or 18%, live in affected homes.

Imran Hussain, director of policy and campaigns at Action for Children, said the pandemic has made an already-critical situation even worse.

He said workers have been feeding desperate families from their own cupboards as the economic effect of Covid-19 causes further heartbreak.

He added: "These grim figures show millions of families with children are already struggling to keep their heads above water even before they - and millions of others living comfortably – find themselves hit hard by the economic wave of this once-in-a-generation health crisis.

"In the past week some families have already got so desperate, our frontline staff are feeding them from their own cupboards."