CPAG's Christmas Message
The first issue of the Child Poverty Action Group’s journal Poverty was published just before Christmas in 1966. On its front page was a letter to the Editor from a mother describing what Christmas was like for her family, as she noted ‘Christmas means a lot of unhappiness and worry for me and my children, trying to think where the toys and all the extra food are coming from.’ CPAG, responding to this letter, noted that this family were one of many thousands for who ‘Christmas is not a blessing but a burden.’ However, they argued that the problem was ‘too big to be solved by private charity alone’. Furthermore, that these families did to want to be supported by charity, but have a ‘decent income, which will be theirs by right … Only government action can secure that right’. These themes echo down the years in the manifold campaigns of CPAG yet Christmas has always been a time when they are especially poignant, and so it became part of a tradition for CPAG to release a Christmas press statement, often accompanied by a report to highlight the difficulties faced by poor families during the festive season.
In 1973 Laurie Elks of CPAG published a report that noted the problems caused by postal delays over the Christmas period when families were left without giros and order books, he cited the case of a ‘Liverpool family with four children who did not receive their weekly giro payment were given an emergency payment that left them only £4 to live on for the week. When the father protested to the manager of the local officer, he replied that the family should have managed properly by not paying the rent!’ ‘I dread to think about Christmas’ was published in December 1976 by Sheila Cliff and Frank Field as a joint CPAG/FSU publication. This study built on a tradition of co-operation between the FSU and CPAG who, as CPAG noted, had strong links both through the founder of CPAG Fred Philip but also there being overlap between the memberships of the two organisations.
CPAG aimed to release their Christmas message in time for the last print run before Christmas in order to make the Christmas editions. As in 1981 when on the 23rd December they released the findings of David Piachaud’s study on children and poverty under the headline ‘Over 2.5 million children face Christmas below the poverty line.’
But equally the Christmas press releases, as with the 1966 Poverty article, would foreground the voices of those who faced a bleak Christmas. In 1987 they published a report ‘Christmas on the Breadline’ which was based on letters sent to the Daily Star, and some in-depth interviews, which demonstrated the anxiety and isolation faced by poor families who feared the extra burden of debt and despair brought by Christmas. As Ruth Lister commented in the Foreword to this publication ‘The read the letters we publish in this report is a heartbreaking reminder of the poverty and despair faced by parents who desperately want to give their children what other children take for granted.’
In 1991 Issy Cole-Hamilton authored a study for CPAG, ‘A Winter’s Tale: the cost of Christmas for poor families’ which utilised both letters to CPAG on the difficulties faced by families in affording Christmas as well as itemising in great detail the actual cost of Christmas to underline its unaffordability for the poor as she concluded ‘A two parent family with two children would need to spend all their benefit for nearly three weeks … to have an average Christmas.’
CPAG emphasised in a press release in 1996 ‘For families on benefit … a Christmas meal can only be enjoyed at the expense of spending on essentials.’ And for CPAG their message in 1996 was, as it had been in 1966, not one-off charitable giving but the need to ‘tackle poverty and improve the adequacy of benefit payments’.
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