A tale of two babies…

A few weeks ago Little Village was lucky enough to be selected by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex as one of four charities their fans could support to celebrate the arrival of the gorgeous and newly-named Archie.

Since then we’ve been overwhelmed by the strength of good will for this new baby. It is a powerful reminder of how much hope is imbued in new life. And it feels really significant that Harry and Meghan have made such a public statement about the importance of every child having the best possible start in life. It’s something we try to put into action every day at Little Village.

This little bundle of joy has already done far more than your average 4day old to help others. We expect to support 3000 children across London this year. Thanks to Archie, we’ve been on the receiving end of countless donations from around the world that will help us to keep our doors open. It has been an amazing movement to be part of.

However, in the week of his birth, I can’t help but think about the contrast between Archie’s future life, and that of Baby Max, whose mum we met a few weeks ago, and who was also born earlier this week.

Already, by their birth day, the paths of these two babies have diverged. Max is more at risk of infant mortality (which has started to rise again in low income groups in this country, while continuting to fall for wealthy families) and low birth weight. Archie will be kept safe and warm in Frogmore Cottage, while Max will spend his early days in a single, sparsely furnished room with his mum. They will share a bathroom and a kitchen. Thanks to Little Village’s generous donors, Max has a Moses basket and enough babygrows to survive a week without his mum needing to use the communal washing facilities. But money will be tight, and nappies will feel like an added burden to the budget.

By the age of 3, Archie and Max will have noticeable physical differences. One paediatric consultant reports how he is seeing a growing evidence of conditions not only exacerbated by poverty, but caused by it. “I’m seeing kids with rickets on a fairly regular basis in my clinic,” he says.

Poverty hits hard emotionally and socially too. In practice it means no school trips, no friends over for tea, no holidays or weekend getaways. It means going hungry to school, wearing trousers back to front to hide holes in the knees, and not having shoes or warm coats to keep the British weather at bay. Apart from being uncomfortable, this brings kids and parents alike great shame and embarassment (watch this, read this, and then weep).

Poverty also has cognitive effects, which stretch well beyond a baby’s first few years, even if life gets easier. Gaps that emerge in these years will persist all the way through a child’s education. According to government statistics, by GCSEs, there is a 28 per cent gap between children receiving free school meals (the best proxy we have for poor kids) and their wealthier peers in terms of the number achieving at least 5 A*-C GCSE grades. Even for those poor kids who do well at GCSE, they are still more likely to be ‘NEET’ (not in education, employment or training) than their better-off peers, according to recent research.

Most bluntly, according to official statistics, Archie is likely to live 9.4 years longer than Max. Poverty doesn’t just diminish lives, it shortens them. It doesn’t get much starker than that.

It is inevitable that at some point this week, someone will grumpily point out that as taxpayers, we are paying for the luxuries and comforts of Baby Archie’s life. When that happens, let’s put the £350 million cost of the monarchy right next to the £29 billion that child poverty costs our society each and every year.

Behind that huge figure sits the physical, emotional, cognitive and social costs to every single one of the 4.1 million children like Max who are growing up poor. No child should be without the basic essentials they need to thrive. And the crucial point is, it doesn’t have to be this way.

Over the course of this year, we’ve welcomed 336 volunteers through our doors at Little Village, from all walks of life. For all their differences, they are united in a simple belief: inequality of this scale should not exist. The good news is that we are not alone. Earlier this year, Ipsos Mori released a poll showing that concerns about poverty in the UK are the highest they have been since 1997. Poverty and rising inequality is now the third biggest concern in the country, up there with housing, the NHS, and of course, Brexit.

These shifts in public attitude are exciting to me, because they challenge a certain kind of fatalism that often hangs around poverty debates. “It will always be with us”, “Some people just can’t make good choices”, or “it’s just what happens if you don’t work hard enough to get ahead”.

And it seems to me that getting over that fatalism is an essential precursor to addressing the unacceptable gaps between Archie’s and Max’s likely trajectories. I want Little Village to be part of a movement that shows people that inequality is neither inevitable nor desirable. We are mobilising people in the belief that we can and should act with compassion and love, to address the gaps in these two babies’ life chances. I am very much hoping that it is this movement, rather than demand for our work, that grows in the coming years.

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